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What’re They Building In There?

By Darran Anderson.


August is the month of agoraphobia. Mobbed by roaming bands of mime artists and amateur thespians, Edinburgh abandons its usual wintry Calvinist spirit and transforms into Babel. With everyone promoting their shows (several thousand in all) at high volume, it’s nearly impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. A runaway juggernaut heading at high speed down the performance art-infested Royal Mile might clear matters up a bit but alas…

With the black cabaret heart of the festival downsizing somewhat compared to previous years, the hunt for quality has been further driven to the margins and for every stunning show discovered (the enchanting Camille – The Dark Angel), there’s at least one diabolically poor counterpart (the sad fall of Jim Rose Circus). Under the main thoroughfare of North Bridge, beneath the bustle of the city and within earshot of the hiss of the passing trains is a place of sheer magic, a quality all too rare in the modern world. In its rooms, there’s a house built from books, a mechanized torture contraption and several journeys into the mind of a bedlamite or visionary.

Let’s be clear first of all, art criticism is nothing more than a necessary evil. At worst, it’s a gnat on the hindquarters of creatures much further up the evolutionary chain, at best it occupies a role similar to that of Statler and Waldorf on The Muppet Show. Criticism, even in the positive sense, inevitably diminishes what it describes. When you start to analyse, you’re depleting the magic . Consider this then, not criticism but a shout over the inane clamour of a thousand comics and amateur dramatists, in favour of the highlight of the festival – Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s stunning and much-overlooked exhibition at the Fruitmarket Gallery.

It begins with a deceptively playful even throwaway sculpture of sorts – The House of Books Has No Windows (2008). Built solely from second-hand tomes, it’s the scale that initially makes an impression, being large enough to crawl inside. As the books are locked in and incapable of being read, it forms a playhouse and a tomb at the same time. Dislocated from their intended purpose, the books are invested with another quality – the titles sending the mind off on tangents – English Cathedral Music, Recollections of a Northumbrian Lady, How Lost was My Weekend? The Wild Boy of Aveyron. They’re no longer simply the titles of novels but a kind of accidental poetry.

You get the sense though that Cardiff and Bures Miller are easing you gently into their mission – which seems to be focused on expanding art beyond the confines of two-dimensions , an escape from art that is flat and solely to be experienced visually. You are not just some spectator posing in hushed reverence before a canvas or some pretentious conceptual abstraction, rather this is art that you are completely swallowed up in, in which your senses are assailed, art that is in the business of creating other worlds.


In this vein, Opera for a Small Room (2005) is simply a masterpiece. You enter through a padded tunnel, your pupils expanding to let in as much light from the pitched darkness as possible. Gradually you make out a wooden hut in the centre of the room. The lights brighten then dim inside and a voice begins to speak in a slow drawl, evoking some lonesome highway cautionary tale. “She was walking down the road…” The room itself looks like a cabin perched at the edge of the world or a lunatic’s basement lost in the belly of a city. A multitude of LPs are scattered around the floor and shelves (Gounod’s Faust, Puccini’s Tosca, old barbershop albums etc– hundreds of them purchased from a recluse in the backwoods of Canada by all accounts), a paint tin is suspended from the roof like a pulley holding up a chandelier, pipes crisscross the roof. Though there’s no figure present, a shadow moves backwards and forwards turning on and off a series of turntables in succession.

The voice slowly begins with a series of broken vignettes, a girl running down a midnight road holding her shoes, mice inside the walls chewing the electrical wires and warning if they start on the records he’ll have to poison them. The records click on and off forming a collage that comes in waves, a snippet of “When a Man loves a Woman,” a hypnotist’s voice “yoooooouuuuuuuu arrrre feeeeling sleepy” and gradually more and more arias until it’s a swirling operatic crescendo of voices and strings. The combination is inexplicable; you’re both shaken up and lulled into a reverie. The music dissipates and the voice continues. He talks of the rain and the sound of a deluge bursts from the speakers until it sounds like its really beating on the roof. A distant bell grows louder as he talks of walking along the railway tracks and with it comes roaring a train so loud that even though you know it’s impossible you turn instinctively towards it as if it’s there. The chandelier shakes and dims as it passes and as it disappears into the distance thousands of crickets stir into life. The voice continues.

When you finally emerge, you’ve forgotten it’s daylight outside and struggle to digest what you’ve witnessed. You can name-drop antecedents (Lynchian, Beckettian, Auster-esque, a room in a Tom Waits nightmare) but comparisons are all bullshit. For this is a unique construction of music, poetry, conceptual art and cinema, ultimately one that’s beyond the sum of its constituent parts and which visibly brought some participants to the point of tears without any of them really knowing why.


As if by accident, you chance upon its sister work The Dark Pool (1995). Located along a landing that is festooned with planks and building materials, the setting is like some forbidden part of the gallery in the process of renovation or demolition. Even the door seems to belong to a forgotten attic. Inside is a dimly-lit hermitage in which you’re invited to explore or intrude upon before whoever resides here returns. There’s a dusty portrait of the Virgin Mary, several disconnected telephones, tiny words cut out of newspapers. Stories emerge from gramophones about mass psychosis and electro-magnetic forces. Pipes with unknown (bodily?) fluids pumping through them. Unopened letters, stained teacups, a coffin-shaped box leaning against the wall. An unmade bed someone has just seemingly rose from. A radio plays snatches of “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” Tins of Queen Mary Tea, antique books pinned open at “Why the apple tree grows in the pine woods” or the phrenological head-shape of “a conceited simpleton.” Alice through the Looking Glass. Ephemera is scattered everywhere, boxes that could be filled with anything. Inside one such briefcase is a twilight-zone lake scene, lit by a row of tiny bulbs, tiny parked cars and figures round a sinister lake that looks like a murder scene or the flooded remnants of a meteor strike.

In the corner is a prototype “wishing machine,” a work of art in itself with operating instructions – “place photo or symbolically related object in slot between copper plates.” Within it, visitors have placed notes with hopes and desires written on them, some mundane, some mysterious, some intensely moving: “return to joy,” “no more fear,” “baby,” “my mom was alive,” “I wonder if you know what you’ve done.” What you first took for a piece about madness or loneliness seems much more than that and you think maybe we missed the point and this, for all its darkness, is someone’s idea of happiness and just one room in another entire universe.


There are other works by Cardiff and Bures Miller present here: audio walks, notebooks filled with unrealised projects, slideshows narrated by the artists but the last major work is easily the most malevolent. Inspired by Franz Kafka’s nightmare prophecy In the Penal Colony, The Killing Machine (2007) is another glimpse into a subterranean otherworld. A dentist’s chair covered in pink fur is placed at the centre of the room. Before it is a desk and seat and beside them a button to be pressed to start the ordeal and implicate us in what will happen. It initiates a mesmerising robotic ballet, the seat rises and falls, mournful classical music hails from the loudspeakers, a robotic arm moves gracefully even tenderly around the chair as if considerately examining a patient. A reassuring voice begins to speak. The lights catch a disco ball, fracture and begin to arc around the room. As the first arm is joined by another, the music rises to a high pitched squeal and the arms switch from caressing motion to one of butchery, precisely and violently stabbing areas where a victim’s body would be placed; the eyes, the genitals, the throat in a chilling mix of sensuality, fetishism and horror.

Weirdly for a machine that’s so futuristic looking, it’s the past, rather than some dystopia to come, which gives the piece its clout. In Goya’s phrase “these things happened” and if not precisely so in real life than certainly equally as terrible. The mind is flooded with images: Mengele’s experiments, Bataille’s Ling Chi photographs, Beria’s cellars, Japan’s Unit 731 and, in times recent enough for the torturers to still walk the streets, the White Lion and Red Rooms of Saddam’s regime, the desaparecidos of Pinochet’s Chile and Cambodia’s “Hill of the Poisonous Trees.” Places like this existed, where human beings were taken apart and made to disappear and, in the dark arts of rendition and black operations, they likely still do. Ultimately, the art is simply presented and the implications take place in your own head.

The Killing Machine is the exception of the three major works here in that it suggests a definite meaning, the others elude it. Overall, Cardiff and Miller raise more questions than they answer, something all great art should do. They introduce themes and trust their audience enough not to over-explain but to just imply and let the imagination race outwards like shockwaves from an impact. There’s a real sense that they’ve tried to preserve the mystery of the art from the tyranny of having to understand. And there’s a certain liberation in not knowing everything, in art that doesn’t teach, cower behind kitsch or indulge in introversion but just, like life, immerses. You can attach meaning as labels to try and rein it all in but it’s a futile gesture. Instead this is art you step into and lose yourself in, the closest to enlightenment we can get.

As the invisible narrator of Opera for a Small Room says, “The music doesn’t really change anything, but it helps him in some way he doesn’t understand…it’s an opera, after all, everyone dies in the end.”

At Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market Street, Edinburgh until September 28th. Free.


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer from Derry, currently residing in Edinburgh, Scotland. He co-edits Dogmatika, Laika Poetry Review and 3:AM. His hero is Fantomas. He writes short stories and poetry, the latest collection of which is entitled Tesla’s Ghost. He is the Pete Best of the Offbeat Generation.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, August 24th, 2008.