Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Prairie Artsters: Seven Year Itch*

On a weekend morning in the late spring of 2003, a fold-out advertisement fell out of my newspaper. The cover of the fold out featured a single eye looking out from a seemingly pristine-yet-deserted movie theatre screen. As a still from The Paradise Institute, a work created by then Lethbridge-based artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, artists I had never heard of and a work I knew nothing about, the lone black and white image of the eye, framed by the shadowy curvature of an anonymous brow down to the jaw, was curious enough for me to make my ever first art trek down to Banff.

Image credit: Janet Cardiff, George Bures Miller, The Paradise Institute, 2001

Being then still an English and Film Studies student at the U of A, the eye in the centre of the screen reminded me of two things: the opening of Luis Buñuel's surrealist Un Chien Andalou for its eye-slicing scene that revolutionized cinema and how we view it; and on a more personal level, the empty theatre setting signaled the death of the single screen cinema experience, which was something of great interest to me. Where sight and sound once enveloped audiences united in a common experience, the multiplex has become a phenomena in bombarding viewers with stadium-seating entertainment. The experience of cinema has changed the content of cinema, and The Paradise Institute seemed to offer another way of experiencing the moving image, one that was completely foreign to my modes of perception.

As far as I had known, the visual arts remained purely fixed in the realm of objects inside of galleries, existing as flat surfaces placed against the wall or fashioned into strips and shapes of forms and colour. Museums and galleries were touring tombs for art historians, and though certain objects were of great totalitizing beauty, I had never experienced that gestalt moment before a work of art, and therefore, did not really believe it existed.

I still have not seen it to this day, this emotion that overwhelms you upon first sight, but sitting inside that forced perspective balcony of The Paradise Institute, I felt and heard an experience that would change me forever.

Binaural audio, reverberating through my inner ear canals, narrating a story that weaved between the fictional film visually playing in the theatre and the fictional sensation of sitting in a theatre, sent a physical chill all the way down my spine. The moving image has never ceased to bewitch me, but here was a creation that opened up a world between the work of art and our physical experiences of that art. It would be in this liminal world where I began exploring the histories of art, film and literary theory, criticism and the cross-pollination of thoughts and forms between disciplines and the limitations we place on how we perceive each discipline.

Almost seven years later, I have still kept these thoughts in mind as I grow as an arts writer and sometimes curator, expanding further into the visual arts, performance art, multimedia and interdisciplinary worlds. There is a long history in believing that every seven years brings a significant change evident in our molecular structure, and so chalk it up to an act of serendipity that the artists who launched my interest in contemporary art would appear again with their largest and most immersive installation to date after first seeing their work seven years ago.

Having continued to blaze the art world since The Paradise Institute wowed Venice in 2001, Cardiff and Bures Miller have continued to play on the false realities of our perceiving minds and bodies. Their use of technology has progressively become more sophisticated in tandem with the technology itself, and their reputations are more international in scope with a studio and home base in British Columbia. Creating the The Murder of Crows, the work currently showing at the AGA, for the Sydney Biennial in 2008 in an empty 200 metre wharf, it is without a doubt they have reached a level of artistic creation and production where budget, logistics and resources are no longer barrier issues.

Packing the house for the their lecture at the Telus Centre on campus last week, where Cardiff and Bures Miller first met as a graduate student and soon-to-be drop out respectively, the pair informally presented selections from their career to a room consisting largely of old friends, former teachers and wide-eyed art students. The talk wasn't riveting by any means, or even all that insightful, but it was warm and charming, much akin to a homecoming where all that matters is that they were standing in the room with you. I left wondering if their reputations had become more valued than the art itself, as the long shadows of The Paradise Institute and certainly Forty Part Motet still hover as the benchmarks that each new subsequent work will be invariably compared with.

Image credit: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Storm Room, 2010
All Photos from: Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2009 | Takenori Miyamoto + Hiromi Seno

The night before the grand opening of the gallery, with an industry night and the energy of numerous out-of-towners swirling throughout the building, I sneaked away to stand inside their freshly completed new work, Storm Room. The seamless illusion of standing in a Japanese-inspired room surrounded by a thunderstorm was surprisingly more realistic than it was magical. From the perfectly timed short circuiting of the lights to the dew drops pitter pattering against the window panes, the installation was perfect in every each way—except I wasn't interested. It was enchanting, but there was no curiosity. Dreading I would have a similar experience for The Murder of Crows, a piece I have been waiting two years to experience in full, I completely bypassed it all together that evening. Hearing from people who had entered the exhibition that night, echoing my experience during an earlier and abbreviated media tour, the acute intensity of everyone in the room-—the pressing desire to be impressed—was far too overpowering to actually take in the art.

Pulling out the worn and creased fold out for The Paradise Institute that's been saved and kept in an ever-growing pile of old programs and postcards, I am having a difficult time remembering the eye opening affect that this art once had over me.

*First published in Vue Weekly

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