Cardiff and Miller’s Lost in the Memory Palace is an unsettling journey

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At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 21

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The Memory Palace is a noisy place. It is filled with the crashing of thunder, the thumping of drums, the soaring of operatic arias, the barking of dogs, the rumbling of freight trains, and the conversations of fictional characters.

This palace is also, as realized in a series of immersive environments, sound sculptures, and multimedia constructions by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, replete with old found objects, shiny new technologies, and fragments of mysterious narratives. They’re narratives we may or may not be able to patch together into a coherent whole.

Cardiff and Miller’s exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Lost in the Memory Palace, consists of nine major and minor works, created between 1995 and 2013.

Based in Berlin and—seemingly antithetically—in the tiny rural community of Grindrod, near Enderby in the British Columbia Interior, the internationally renowned Canadian duo didn’t necessarily design these individual works to be parts of a greater whole. However, they were curated as such by the VAG’s Bruce Grenville and the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Kitty Scott.

At a recent media preview, Grenville explained that this overview of Cardiff and Miller’s collaborations was organized around the physical space and imaginative possibilities of the room. In fact, the show is designed as a somewhat labyrinthine series of rooms through which gallery visitors may wander and wonder and, yes, become lost.

The memory palace of the title is an allusion to what Grenville described as an “ancient mnemonic technique” that involves calling to mind sequential rooms in an imaginary palace, each associated with a particular memory that can be summoned by mentally walking through it.

The memories summoned by Cardiff and Miller are often unsettling, occasionally disturbing, and frequently dark. Throughout the show, there are suggestions of fictional violence—of suicide, torture, murder, execution.

Certainly, loss is a recurring motif here, as in the sci-fi disappearances suggested by The Dark Pool, an installation laid out as a madly cluttered storeroom charged with visual and aural clues. Or in allusions to a woman who may have been killed by a train in Opera for a Small Room, an equally cluttered space into which we peer, trying to make sense of the multitude of old records and record players and our own voyeuristic encounter with an unseen, reclusive occupant. Or the image of a woman in a red dress—is she dead or merely drunk?—slumped over an unmade bed in a hotel room, in the single-channel video Kathmandu.

There’s the mood of film noir and murder mysteries in much of Cardiff and Miller’s art. Existential pain and world affairs also inform it, as seen in The Killing Machine, an extremely disturbing installation in which robotic arms swoop and dance and torture an invisible victim, strapped to a dentist’s chair. This work draws its references from Franz Kafka’s The Penal Colony, the persistence of capital punishment in the United States, and the images of abuse that emerged from Abu Ghraib.

Throughout this exhibition, sound is the most powerful, the most original, and the most resonant element—literally and figuratively resonant. It does not simply complement the multimedia installations but drives them. It directs our emotional and physical response to them and is responsible, more than anything else here, for our investment in the fictional scenarios, our willing suspension of disbelief.

Sound is the enfolding fourth dimension in Experiment in F# Minor, in which 72 denuded speakers of different sizes lie face up on a couple of rough wooden tables and emit a cacophony of electronic groans and beeps along with voices speaking, sirens wailing, trucks roaring, pianos tinkling, and drumbeats laid over guitar riffs. Each sound in this wondrously complex piece is triggered by our shadows as we walk around it, so that our shadows become embodied. They’re the agents of all the liveliness—and the deathly darkness—that occurs here.

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