New York

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Janet Cardiff first became known for works that she calls walks, in which her recorded voice guides headphone-wearing visitors through a site—a park, a museum—and modulates their experience of it through scraps of description and information, fragmented stories, and 360-degree environmental sound. Part of the charge of these pieces lies in the friction between their intricately realized auditory landscapes, which seem to put us and Cardiff inside one another’s heads, and the landscape through which we walk—the same, unaltered scene we usually perceive out of no one’s body but our own. In these works Cardiff leaves the world as it is, instead adjusting the way we experience it between our ears. But she seems to have wanted an alternative, and she and her husband, George Bures Miller, have also made elaborate installations, which use sound but are visually concrete.

If the walks are literally invisible, the installations, such as the centerpiece of this show, The Carnie (all works 2010), often lean toward Grand Guignol. A creepy carousel, first met in darkness, it periodically lights up and revolves, the bulbs on its ogee arches flashing in varying sequences, an automated drum kit that rides it beating time for the broadcast of a wheezy two-tone modulation on what sounds like the traditional carnival harmonium. (The score’s composer, Freida Abtan, is known for her electronic music.) The carousel’s spookiness comes partly from its scale: It is a shrunken version of life size, and the mounts have shrunk less than the platform has, so that they are almost impenetrably crammed together. These idiosyncratic fauna—a cow, a giraffe—also show a cartoony formal modeling, slight but distinct, that gives them a heightened, unheimlich presence recalling the photographs of mannequins and dolls by Surrealists such as Hans Bellmer. One also thinks of more recent, popular verbal or visual imagemakers such as Stephen King or Tim Burton, and of Hitchcock’s wonderfully frightening carousel-run-amok scene in Strangers on a Train. Mikhail Bakhtin may pose the carnivalesque’s collapsing of order as basically liberatory, but another side of that coin has long been sensed. An installation of Cardiff and Bures Miller’s from 2007, The Killing Machine, evoked “In the Penal Colony,” Kafka’s short story about a machine built to tattoo a prisoner to death; their carousel might be a less explicit, musical version of that terrible device.

Supplementing The Carnie in the show was The Cabinet of Curiousness, a wooden chest of the kind once made for the library card catalogues now everywhere replaced by computers. The visitor who tried the drawers found that each held a speaker, which came to life as the drawer opened, playing one or another kind of music, perhaps a speech by Winston Churchill—fragments of an aural archive—and then went silent as it closed. Finally, in the gallery’s entrance and its final room, so as to bracket these works spatially, were two groups of film noir–ish telephones, rotary, black, and Bakelite—again, like card catalogue and carousel, old-fashioned and past. Picking up a phone, you heard Cardiff’s voice recounting a dream.

Imagine the phone ringing at three in the morning so that a sleepy-voiced friend could tell you a dream she’d just had, and you get an idea of the ambience of these telephone pieces. They were significant, though, in extending the show’s modes of reception: passive waiting, watching, and listening, for The Carnie; active compositional choice for The Cabinet of Curiousness, as the visitor spontaneously mixed sounds by opening the drawers in combination; and an intermediate position in the ability to both pick up and hang up the telephone, either triggering sound or ending it. The intimacy of the telephone voice, too, and the enforced solitude of listening to it, enlarged the show’s constitution of its audience, from public and collective to quite private. Most of all, the telephones reframed the status of the other works, phrasing everything between them as, perhaps, dream, the distorted, unconscious emergence of memory and emotion. Concrete though the installation was, like Cardiff’s walks it really dealt in the invisible, putting us and the artists inside one another’s heads.

David Frankel