Bay Area residents may remember Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s sonically luscious and meticulous immersive sound installation “The Forty Part Motet” (2001), exhibited at Fort Mason Center for the Arts in 2015. The artists’ current exhibition “Ambient Jukebox & Other Stories” at Fraenkel Gallery (through March 9) features much more modestly scaled and intuitively fabricated interactive and sonic sculptures. While the scale of the works in the current exhibition might be smaller, the British Columbia-based collaborative artists present an exhilarating body of work that transforms vintage, flea market found objects into poetic and humorous small worlds.
The exhibition begins strongly with one of the most narrative and funniest works, “Suitcase Theater” (2020-2023). Housed in a cloth-covered wooden suitcase, the sculpture elicits bygone days of early 20th century circus vagabonds or traveling salesmen. With the open suitcase mounted on the wall, its purple satin pockets blend with magenta statin theater curtains the artists have added to suggest the stage. Adding an element of contemporary technology to the diorama, a mobile phone mounted to the front of the suitcase invites viewers to watch the artists’ crudely rendered puppets conversing in sweet and absurdist topics, like missing black socks; the dangers of sitting vs. smoking; a school teacher’s talk on creationism and evolution as “theories” from which to choose. Made between 2020-2023, the work feels like a memento of the oddities that many of us undertook to entertain ourselves during the pandemic’s height in a shrunken world.
Moving through the gallery’s three rooms, the exhibition dramatically expands its scale in the last room with an immersive light and sound installation, “Cosmic Disco,” based on recordings from a Plasma Wave Detector that was aboard NASA’s Voyager I and II, both launched in 1977. At first glance, the dark and “high-tech” appearing planetarium-like installation might feel formally and conceptually disjointed from the home-spun objects in the rest of the exhibition. However, closer inspection reveals that the dazzling and swirling light show is produced by high intensity, tight-focus lights directed on disco balls, which the artists painted black and attached small round mirrors. The directness and simplicity of using disco balls injects a bit of humor into their magical illusion, where the immensity of the cosmos has been scaled down to fit in a room to surround viewers. Additionally, while the data recorded by the Voyagers is not audible in outer space, once returned to Earth it becomes hauntingly abstract sounds and the installation becomes a human-centric or Earth-based sonic representation of space.
While we might privilege “high-tech” over “low-tech” in society at large, Cardiff and Bures Miller’s exhibition creates objects and worlds where these differences are more a matter of extremes in proximity, as well as physical and historical scale. Most powerfully, the eclectic exhibition merges illusion, wonder, and make-believe in the small worlds of wooden domestics objects, that we might consider “vintage” in a 21-Century perspective, and in the galaxy’s billion year old time line; in both cases, Cardiff and Bures Miller invite viewers to engage in an embodied sense of time and scale.
JANET CARDIFF AND GEORGE BURES MILLER: AMBIENT JUKEBOX & OTHER STORIES through March 9 at Fraenkel Gallery, SF. More info here.