JANET CARDIFF, GEORGE BURES MILLER AND PHILIP DICORCIA: WHITECHAPEL ART GALLERY, LONDON (JUNE-AUGUST 2003)
"It was interesting to see how people did choose to respond when faced with this ascetic holy noise: one man, clearly angry at the passive chant, grabbed a speaker, attempting to rip it from its frame. Another man looked close to tears. Other restless cynics looked contemptuous of the naive contemplation conjured from the commercial space of the centre of the gallery. Others simply gave in to the sheer selfless sadness and lonely terror of the spiritual intensity, and closed their eyes."
By Greg Whitfield
COPYRIGHT © 2003, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
"Meaning is fluid and truth is mutable…the relationship of images to each other is narrative, fictive and disingenuous and completely true to nothing but itself…intuition is grounded in fact: the combination of the subliminal and the intentional is at the service of the actual…I have always tried to make work that required time to reveal its effect" -- Philip Lorca diCorcia
"Passive is also being active" -- Philip Lorca diCorcia
Paradoxical as Lorca diCorcia's above quoted words may appear, they hint at the contradictory pull of emotion, intuitive raw reality and postmodern ambiguity at the centre of his work, and indeed, the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.
One enters the gallery from the teeming throng and disturbed, restless streets of East London, moving into the stillness of the Whitechapel Art Gallery. The exhibition is divided into two distinct and separate parts: firstly, the architectural "sound sculptures" and films of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, followed by the photography of Philip Lorca diCorcia in the upper gallery.
In the lower gallery is the sound installation of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The participant enters the silence of a large empty room, faced by row upon row of sound system speakers. Arranged in a large circle, they have the function of thrusting the "viewer" into the centre of the room, in turn to become the focus of attention. Each participant then, is watched, observed by each other. Suddenly, the holy noise and austere purity of medieval hermit monks' chant fills the huge space, beautiful in its naivety of intention as it blasts from the sound system. The gallery visitors, the cynical audience are taken aback, unsure how to react: what is there to do, to see, to partake in here? What is there to observe, to judge, to form fixed opinions about?
Nothing apparently, and therein lies the initial challenge and value of Cardiff and Miller's paradoxically passive yet simultaneously provocative piece -- the reaction of the restless audience thrown back upon themselves then, becomes the focus of attention.
It was interesting to see how people did choose to respond when faced with this ascetic holy noise: one man, clearly angry at the passive chant, grabbed a speaker, attempting to rip it from its frame. Another man looked close to tears. Other restless cynics looked contemptuous of the naive contemplation conjured from the commercial space of the centre of the gallery. Others simply gave in to the sheer selfless sadness and lonely terror of the spiritual intensity, and closed their eyes.
This 16th century choral piece chosen by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller is pertinently entitled "I've Never Put My Trust in Anyone But You".
Moving on from Cardiff and Miller's sound exhibit of otherworldly religious incantation, one is led to the film room. This is a darkened soundproofed chamber, an airless space in which one feels strangely cocooned and comforted: a still place, yet brought to life by the threat of strangeness. One can't see anything in this room, forced to feel one's way about the oddly angled walls, stumbling over the bodies of other participants in the darkness.
A brittle flickering crackling comes from the concealed speakers, as a neon light, nervously flicking on and off, flashes harshly on the screen. From this threatening and provocative opening, Cardiff and Miller thrust the viewer into David Lynch territory, the atmosphere of the filthy "close up severed ear in the grass" scene in Blue Velvet, observing the nausea of a fly passing into the inner canal. Whooshing white noise reaches an intense pitch as the viewer follows a female subject on the screen into a darkened subway tunnel. The noise spirals to a peak as the subway tunnel is spun upside down. Now the viewer perceives the image from a bizarre upside down angle, the filmed subject's high heels clacking on what should be the floor, now transformed into the roof: twisted vision matched by an incoherent and disturbing narrative, intense in its dark paranoia.
The disorientation of the images on the screen is intensified by the ambiguity of the space in which the film is shown. It's very difficult to get one's bearings in this room -- any move one makes seems to push up against other bodies in the pitch black darkness of the cramped film theatre.
Cardiff and Miller's cut-up images flow smoothly yet incoherently on the screen as the viewer is now led from the threatening subway into an ornate, baroque house. A melancholy piano plays. A tap drips. Sounds and jagged moods gnaw at the senses, perversely encouraging and raising irritation, ultimately reaching a peak when the screen is swept clean of the urban imagery to be replaced by more white noise and a running figure traversing a barren white snowscape (the image has all the cinematic eeriness and coolness of an Alfred Stieglitz print). Vicious dogs snarl and bark on the soundtrack, footsteps stutter percussively and a disembodied voice shouts pointlessly. A man's voice cuts in, reciting a lonely narrative of a near-death experience as the screen is filled with images of cracking and brittle thin ice covering a river's surface. The white noise intensifies: industrial noise, ringing metal tones and the whooshing roars of the inner city and natural wasteland.
Cardiff and Miller's use of impressionistic imagery and powerful mood conjure up reminiscences of a Raymond Carver story: powerful moments when one's life is transformed, immeasurably, completely, forever.
Emerging from the dichotomy of calm and neurosis present in the film room, the viewer passes Cardiff and Miller's video exhibit of a burning house: a flaming wooden structure, alone on a darkened hill, strangely evocative and reminiscent of a literary image from a despairing Anton Chekhov or Guy De Maupassant narrative. What happened here, amongst the crackling red and black glow?
In the upper section of Whitechapel Gallery, we confront the pathos of the Philip-Lorca diCorcia prints, the subjects hauntingly lit in their loneliness, exuding a shocked and melancholy quality: "How did I get here? What am I doing in this place?", they seem to query. It's a naive beauty they portray. A sadness, at times barren or pathetically humorous, at other times evoking something deeply respectful of the melancholy and banality of the subjects' lot, something darkly historic. Robbers, thieves, Rabbis, prostitutes, hookers, junkies, lonely preachers, gamblers and conservative family men people his empty and lonely landscapes, beautifully and angelically lit in their isolation. Lost people, saint like subjects, unsure of what has befallen them, or conversely accepting of the mystery of their predicament -- the mystification of this mortal snare, the physical net, caught up in their concrete environments, outside of any meaningful context or role.
The subject matter shows people in isolation -- a frail and bewildered businessman, collapsed outside a dilapidated office. (The viewer is painfully aware of the pathos of the subject's cracked glasses and soiled suit as he lies on a dirty sidewalk.) In another portrait, an old woman is alone in a pale steel grey elevator, her face shrouded in shadow, bony fingers with painted nails reaching for the floor buttons.
In DiCorcia's next portrait, an aged man descends into the dark horror of the subway, an urban Orpheus descending into his own private and subjective underworld. The mundane subway symbols emblazoned on cold grey concrete, usually banal and familiar, take on altogether new and classical meanings in this estranged context. In another photograph, a startled boy having just set off a forest fire wheels round to face the viewer, the horror on his face indicative of the dawning catastrophe, the understanding of what he has done. From this moment on, his life will never be the same again. In another lonely study, an earnest woman stands alone over her cutting board preparing lifeless food, knife held in hand, bewildered expression on her face. "How did I get here?"
There is a recurring beauty, sadness and an intimated reminder of mortality in these existential images: the contradiction of mystery and openness are at the heart of DiCorcia's work.
Much as DiCorcia's pictures honestly and naively reveal, they also seem to conspire to conceal from the viewer, in the same manner that religion and ancient ritual mystify and obfuscate as much as they communicate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Whitfield writes about music and art, and has produced work for the BBC and a number of art journals. He also writes promotional press releases and publicity copy for various London-based record companies.