The Nine Circles of Melancholy

by Jason Smythe

Cardiff_Miller_06

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Opera for a Small Room, 2005 (interior view)
Mixed media installation, with audio, record players, records, speakers and synchronized lighting, 20 minutes (loop) Courtesy of the Artists, and Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York Photo: Markus Tretter, Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2005-06

Cardiff and Miller’s Lost in the Memory Palace is an awesome exhibit, and focuses on a number of complex themes. It consists of nine rooms, all containing a unique installation and exploring the theme of memory creation and loss. But for whatever reason writing an article about it has been, to put it mildly, a nightmare. I kid you not, I have written, and then quickly deleted, three completed articles on this exhibit! Were the deletions really necessary, you ask? They were, because none of them fully captured the complexity of the exhibit. My first article focused too much on the room called “The Killing Machine,” and the second article focused too much on another room called “Opera for a Small Room.” The third article well, it just plain sucked—please don’t make me relive the horror of that cursed third article! In the words of Kurtz: “The horror… the horror…”

So, where does this leave you, the probably slightly annoyed reader who just wants me to get on with it and talk about art? Well, luckily for you I went over my notes for a fourth time and had an epiphany: the notes I took while I viewed the exhibit were better than any of those three aforementioned articles! My second epiphany was that I should just copy and paste the notes and submit a stream of consciousness analysis of the exhibit (Note: my notes have been edited slightly, as there were some grammatical errors). I sat around waiting for a third epiphany, but then remembered that my brain only does things in twos (It isn’t OCD, my brain is just strange like that), so I resumed my writing. So without further ado I present my analysis! (Trust me; this is so much better than that third article. You really have no idea.)

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller Experiment in F# Minor, 2013 interactive mixed media installation with audio and speakers Courtesy of the Artists, Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York and Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Experiment in F# Minor, 2013
Iteractive mixed media installation with audio and speakers
Courtesy of the Artists, Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York and Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo
Photo: Art Gallery of Ontario

  • Dominant themes: rooms as a place of safety, a place where memories are stored. However, they can also be a place that is fragmented, dangerous, and where memories are lost. Conclusion: rooms, which in this exhibit symbolize the human mind, are places of both narrative production and destruction.
  • “Opera for a Small Room”: the space is almost pitch black except for a faint light that creeps out of a large booth in the middle. A narrator’s voice can be heard coming from (seemingly) nowhere, and the sounds of an oncoming train make it feel claustrophobic. Feels like my head is about to explode and the advancing train is symbolic of my increasingly panic-stricken state. Sound stops, and then opera starts playing from the booth. It is full of old vinyl records and record players that are able to operate without human assistance. The sounds of opera begin to soothe my nerves, and it reminds me of The Haunted Mansion, with its slightly creepy chandelier and the fact that the machines seem to be operated by poltergeists. Although the music is soothing it is also melancholic, just like the room.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller The Killing Machine, 2007 mixed media installation, with audio, pneumatics and robotics, 5 minutes Courtesy of the Artists, and Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York Photo: Seber Ugarte and Lorena Lopez, MACBA, Barcelona, 2007

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller
The Killing Machine, 2007
mixed media installation, with audio, pneumatics and robotics, 5 minutes
Courtesy of the Artists, and Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York
Photo: Seber Ugarte and Lorena Lopez, MACBA, Barcelona, 2007

  • “The Killing Machine”: it is like the execution machine from In the Penal Colony, but as if designed by David Lynch. Like in Kafka’s machine, are we supposed to learn the errors of our ways before it kills us? Or has the lesson it was supposed to teach us been lost to the failure of memory? Thought: is losing something to history (like in Kafka’s work) the same as losing/forgetting a memory? Isn’t history the collective memory of humanity?
  • “House Burning Room”: eventual loss of all memory, through either natural or man-made causes. Nothing is permanent. This doesn’t bode well for humanity. Again, melancholic.
  • “Road Trip” is one of the best rooms. A man and woman are looking through the photos the man’s grandpa took while traveling. Turns out photos are not in chronological order—sometimes our minds place things out of order, and organizing memories takes immense effort. Man has never met his grandpa—he died before the man was born. Grandma suffered because of this. Again, melancholic.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller The Dark Pool, 1995 mixed media installation with audio Courtesy of K21, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf Photo: Paolo Pellion

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller The Dark Pool, 1995 mixed media installation with audio
Courtesy of K21, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
Photo: Paolo Pellion

  • The Dark Pool: theme of clutter (of disorganized memories and spaces) becomes evident—ties all the rooms together. Just like in your own brain, the memory creating and storing process is not neat. The theme of love and loss is also explored, and the supernatural element from Opera Room remains. Again, I am reminded of The Haunted Mansion.
  • Conclusion: each of these rooms focuses on some form of torment or a form of sadness—each room is like a circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, only a personal hell rather than one created by God or Satan. Nine rooms in total, nine circles of personal hell? All of the rooms have a tinge of melancholy to them. Life and memory have nine circles or stages, and all are tinged with melancholy. Is this a brutally honest or overly pessimistic portrayal of life? Is life really this sad?

And now ends the stream of consciousness analysis. I hope you enjoyed the article, and that you appreciate how fortunate you are. Why are you fortunate, you ask? You are fortunate for myriad reasons, but mostly because I didn’t force you to read my third article. Seriously, you all owe me a drink. Actually, make it two. You all know how fond my brain is of the number two.

Lost in the Memory Palace runs until September 21st at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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