Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have littered the Miami Art Museum with enough banana peels to send visitors sliding into some disorienting realities. Their slippery installations fuse fiction with haunting sound effects, hijacking spectators and taking them on a surreal journey.
Part sound sculpture, part theatrical experience, the work of the husband-and-wife collaborators is pigeonhole-defying, mixing operas, art films, and literature with B movies, rock and roll, and radio broadcasts.
They successfully amp up these disparate elements with audio snippets of their own voices, which often serve as red herrings in spellbinding tales that tease the imagination of viewers by inviting them to become characters in the artists' oblique novella.
"The Killing Machine and Other Stories 1995-2007"
Through January 20. Miami Art Museum, 101 W Flagler St, Miami, and the Freedom Tower, 600 Biscayne Blvd, Miami; 305-375-3000, www.miamiartmuseum.org.
"The Killing Machine and Other Stories 1995-2007" features 11 multimedia installations (10 at MAM and one at the Freedom Tower) and marks the first MAC @ MAM show since the programs merged last year. It's a sensational first act.
The Killing Machine, from which the show takes its name, was inspired by Franz Kafka's story In the Penal Colony. It's intended as a meditation on capital punishment in America. The piece is reminiscent of the scene in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in which the cheery sociopath submits to the "Ludovico technique," an experimental aversion therapy that will break him of his taste for the "ultraviolence" and save him from a multiple murder charge.
To trigger Cardiff and Bures Miller's threatening contraption, one must press a huge red button. The installation resembles a mechanized torture chamber and houses an electric dental chair tricked out in Pepto-Bismol-pink fur. When the seat is activated, a megaphone speaker spins atop it, vomiting the plaintive wail of violins into the air.
An empty interrogator's desk stands in front of the machine, and several robotic arms whir above the chair, furiously flailing at an invisible prisoner. Television monitors flicker eerily while a mirrored disco ball rotates above, splattering light across the room. A guitar is strapped on a shelf where a pair of drumsticks has been jerry-rigged to beat to its chords at intervals, unleashing violent moans.
When the spectator stands alone in the darkened space with the artists' ironic poke at the death penalty, this installation both provokes and repels thought. It elicits a shudder as it shows what terror suspects, held at covert prisons operated by the United States and other "enlightened" governments, might actually be encountering in the world today.
A work that twangs a less menacing note yet still intrigues is Playhouse, which lures solitary spectators into a curtained-off box to watch a soprano sing in a piece mixing sound and video.
Inside, visitors overlook a miniature architectural model of an opera house. They wear headphones that mingle the sounds of the audience and the warbling woman. The sultry voice of a female audience member — Cardiff — cuts in, urging spectators to check under their seats for a hidden suitcase and calling for its delivery backstage. "It's up to you now," the faceless conspirator whispers before vanishing.
The ambiguity of the assignment lingers in suspense until the voice of a man — Bures Miller — interrupts, informing that long after the theater falls into decay and becomes a haven for rats, "You will return to the performance that night." It's an experience that leaves viewers feeling as if they are present for the Royal Albert Hall climax of Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much.
A flair for the dramatic is magnified in Opera for a Small Room, based on the dubious R. Dennehy, a resident of Salmon Arm, British Columbia, and an inveterate hoarder of opera records. Cardiff and Bures Miller bought the collection of 2000 records, all signed by the enigmatic figure, and created an engrossing opus based on his squirrelly obsession.
The installation — a ramshackle cube in the middle of the gallery that visitors can peek into through a few openings but cannot enter — suggests the room where Dennehy might have vented his passions in rustic Canada. Imagine Pappy Yokum with a penchant for Puccini setting up a pirate radio station in Dogpatch to tune in the picture.
The room is choked with clutter. Hundreds of LPs are stacked on the floor and line makeshift shelves running the length of the walls. A ratty chandelier gives the space a faint glow. Creaky turntables and dozens of decrepit speakers add to the hovel's chaos. At one point the sound of thunderclaps and sheets of rain drown the room.
An unseen narrator bitches that the place is falling apart and that weasels and mice are chewing through the walls and making a meal of the musty vinyl treasures.
A record drops onto a turntable and the voice of a carny hypnotist intones, "Your face muscles are becoming perfectly relaxed. Deeper, deeper, deeper — you are getting very sleepy."
A tenor's voice booms through the room until Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" blares. Still the hypnotist drones on. The installation goes dark, leaving viewers feeling stranded within a revolving door of artifice. There is nothing to guide spectators back from the artists' illusion — that is, until the sound of a hurtling train shakes the floor, chasing visitors away from the loon's cabin.
The earliest installation on view is The Dark Pool, in which a door leads to an unimaginable room bursting with furniture, carpets, books, dirty dishes, a filthy bed, racks of moth-eaten clothes, and mechanical gadgets in a mess that would put Fred Sanford to shame.
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An alky still has booze trickling into an old bottle through amber rubber tubes. A battered suitcase on a sawhorse is cracked open, revealing a diorama of people parked at what appear to be the La Brea Tar Pits. Wires snake from the ceiling in a dense thicket, and motion sensors are triggered when people walk by. Heavy footsteps and mumbling voices follow spectators through the wacky scene.
Another work, The Paradise Institute (originally produced for the Canadian pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale), captures the sights and sounds of the cinematic experience in a relatable way for anyone familiar with a lousy night at the local megaplex.
The artists' perspective-warping, old-school movie palace, complete with two rows of red velvet seats, unspools a film mixing thriller, crime, science fiction, and experimental genres. Meanwhile cell phones ring, the voice of an annoying audience member whines that she "left her oven burners on in the kitchen," and other obnoxious intrusions annoy. You turn your head to quiet the noise, only to realize you're all alone.
Long after you've experienced Cardiff and Bures Miller's riveting exhibit, you might find yourself trying to slap away the voices and images they've left marinating your brain.