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Hands playing an organ keyboard
Hands playing an organ keyboard

Close-up of Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller's The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, 2018. Installation at Luhring Augustine, New York, NY

A spotlight pours yellow rays on an upright mellotron encircled by socially distanced chairs, all wrapped in a dome of controlled darkness. An arresting silence lingers, occasionally broken as gallery guests hesitantly part the velvet curtain, enter the space, and interact with the organ. The Instrument of Troubled Dreams, 2018, is the acutely engaging centerpiece in Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s After the summer of smoke and fire on view at Luhring Augustine gallery in Chelsea, which documents a selection of recent productions by the British-Columbia-based duo who have been collaborating since 1995.

Some truth in the title: the smoke and the summer, though equivocal, excavates memories of the 2020 anti-racist uprisings, and the mish-mash of the past year. A generous amount of time has lapsed, but it is quite impossible that the emotional intensity of the period has evaporated. If we take the cue from the artists’ representation of auditory sensations linked to memories, then the items on display are, in the Freudian sense, instruments of subconscious extraction, of exploring a concealed double consciousness—of an awareness of being both physically present and immaterial, yet with a fragmented will.

In 2018, Cardiff and Miller presented The Instrument of Troubled Dreams at the Oude Kerk, an ambient site and one of the few enduring medieval structures in Amsterdam. Now a hidden gem of individual amusement, the mellotron and the finely tuned sound systems are invitingly installed in the gallery, demanding vast patience from those who wish to extract value from them. The mellotron consists of 72 keys, each programmed to play a recording. When pressed in a random or deliberate sequence, the emanating sounds enact a cinematic aura, as if listening to a film soundtrack. For instance, one result of pressing the keys could be an echo of marching steps, laced with the warbling of seagulls and then obliterated by a convergence of chants and sirens.

In the two smaller showpieces, Feed Plant, (2021) and Cabin Fire, (2021), the artists inserted an objective painting of a landscape into an electronic board, and an electronic switch as the interactive portal. The recorded sound—Cardiff’s lyrical expression of restlessness—complements the textural surface of the oil paintings by establishing a sonic channel for emotional and visceral interaction. Cardiff recites intensely introspective verses on mundane life, on touch and contact, and on boredom. No doubt these interactive objects pieces unraveled from the temporal expanse of the 2020 quarantine, a period in which monotonous inactivity enabled the devotion of energy to the exposure and processing of restrained personal experiences.

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