New York

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Marionette Maker, 2014, caravan, marionettes, robotics, lighting, audio (14 minutes), mixed media, 15' 4“ × 18' 6” × 10' 10".

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Marionette Maker, 2014, caravan, marionettes, robotics, lighting, audio (14 minutes), mixed media, 15' 4“ × 18' 6” × 10' 10".

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

Luhring Augustine | Chelsea

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Marionette Maker, 2014, caravan, marionettes, robotics, lighting, audio (14 minutes), mixed media, 15' 4“ × 18' 6” × 10' 10".

A group of inanimate objects endowed with uncanny life, someone at work designing them, a nod to the unconscious, an object whose age introduces the principle of memory: The Marionette Maker, 2014, seems to me to be a parable of artmaking, in more ways than the obvious one that it is named after a maker of sculptural figures. We enter a darkish room holding a familiar but old-fashioned object, a nearly eleven-foot-long caravan, that endearing predecessor, somehow both clunky and flimsy, of today’s hulking RVs. This one is already strange in that it’s topped by a large pair of rotating, megaphone-type speakers, themselves topped in turn by an umbrella much too small to shelter what’s beneath it—a token protection against the storm sounds coming from the speakers, along with aircraft hums, forest murmurs, and other noises. Nearing the caravan, we see that Cardiff and Miller have provided its various windows, doors, and hatches with tableaux, most of them peopled with moving marionettes or automatons (the latter more likely I think, though the dolls are provided with strings) and other entities: an opera singer and her accompanist at the piano, who together periodically grace us with a Tchaikovsky aria; a sailing ship on a vigorously stormy sea; an underground grotto; the marionette maker himself, drawing at a miniature desk that sits on the caravan’s built-in full-size table; and, most dramatically, stretching almost the full width of the caravan, a sleeping female figure—a life cast, apparently, of Cardiff herself.

The work rewards in its intricacy, the detail in which it is worked through. Capitalizing on the givens of the old caravan, its nested parts fitting like a jigsaw, Cardiff and Miller have complicated each view into it enough that we keep looking to be sure we haven’t missed something. We wonder, for example, whether the marionette standing on the hip of the sleeping artist is another portrait of Cardiff. The scale jump made by the placement of another marionette near a full-sized coffee cup and a Heinz baked-beans can holding brushes (a reference to Jasper Johns’s Savarin can?) brings home the interior’s cohabitation by humans and dolls. Why do a couple of large books hang by a rope from the ceiling? Who is actually the marionette maker: the figure at the desk or the woman asleep? A crowd of amorphous blob-like creatures (vegetal? crustacean?) gathered around her read to me as early, unfinished thoughts, ideas in development—for the whole work looks to me like an image of the artist’s consciousness, of the sounds and pictures that come and go in his or her dreaming mind. The fact that that mind is mobile, literally wheeled, relates, I think, to an old sense of the artist as an outsider, a wanderer, someone outside the normal social order, uneasily present and always ready to pick up and go. The idea goes back at least to the harlequins of Watteau, and later of Picasso; indeed, for me The Marionette Maker is a kind of descendant of a Picasso minotaur painting, Minotaur Moving His House of 1936—a work once quoted by Johns—that addresses it directly.

Cardiff and Miller also showed a second piece, Experiment in F# Minor, 2013, installed in the gallery’s farther space. This was a collection of more than a hundred audio speaker drivers of different sizes, laid pointing upward on a pair of tables. The work was interactive: As viewers passed by, or moved their hands over the tables, their shadows triggered sounds from the speakers, different musics—from guitars, pianos, voices, synthesizers—all in the melancholy key of F-sharp minor. The interactivity had a complication, it seemed to me: the more people there were in the room, bringing their shadows with them, the more multiple and majestic the sound, but also the less control any one person had, and the harder to tell what contribution his or her movements had made. The Marionette Maker—E. T. A. Hoffmann on the move in North America—was the more engrossing work.

David Frankel