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“Don’t miss the works of Tino Sehgal, Pierre Huyghe & Janet Cardiff. I’ve been told they’ve surpassed themselves.” This was the warning the artist, Alicia Framis gave to Enrique Vila-Matas just before he set off on his trip to Kassel to participate in Documenta 13, an experience which, with a great sense of humour and not without irony, the writer went on to fictionalise in his latest novel The illogic of Kassel, published at the beginning of this year.
FOREST (for a thousand years…) is the sound installation that the Canadians Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller presented in the Karlsaue park in the German city. It was, in the words of Vila-Matas, a bellicose binge that reconstructed the bombardments suffered by the park and which ruined the city during the Second World War. A fiction or auditory tromp l’oeil that remembered the historic chapter of a specific time and place. Along with this piece, the artists also presented Bahnhof Video Walk, an audio-video walk through the interior of a railway station, that alluded to the wagons of those deported and sent to concentration caps and reminiscent of the video walks for which the artists became known in the eighties and nineties. Having traversed Documenta and experienced the works of Cardiff and Bures Miller and many other artists, the writer–or his fictional id- arrived at the certainty that “Art was, in effect, something that was happening to me, occurring at that very moment. And the world once again seemed unprecedented, driven by an invisible impulse.”
This same invisible impulse, that Vila-Matas intuits, is what we find once again in the installation “The Marionette Maker” that Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller have created for the Palacio de Cristal, in the Retiro park. The piece consists of a caravan with a Canadian licence plate parked in the middle of the nineteenth century glass and metal building, on to which they have placed two large revolving loudspeakers, finished off with the surrealist touch of an umbrella. These emit all-enveloping sounds, contributing even more to the unreal ambience: from feminine murmurings and noises that seem to come from nature, to the singing of birds or the rain as it falls, to even the keys played on a piano and the blast of an airplane as it flies past. The spectator is invited to sit down in battered old seats as if in a theatre and encouraged to participate in the spectacle and become a voyeur. The first thing that we see is a little theatre with a pianist and an opera singer. This already warns us that it is the art of looking and listening that dominates the whole installation.
An unconscious woman presides the scene, from the back end of the caravan– she resembles a reproduction of Janet Cardiff, as real and disturbing as the human replicas of the artist Ron Mueck –dressed in a white nightgown. What to me seems even more disturbing was the debate that arose amongst those in attendance around me, amongst whom a few assured that the reclining figure was real, while a woman at my side even confirmed that it was breathing. What’s certain is that much like a sleeping beauty (we don’t know if in reality she was dead or asleep) the figure contrasts all that surrounds her. Around her, in a creative frenzy, marionettes and puppets of all sorts accumulate inside the caravan, with crazed movements that contrast with the idea of stillness and death. At her feet, a rocker automaton plays the guitar. On the opposite side, a doll sits at a desk writing compulsively, whilst by her side the piano keys are played by an invisible hand. It is the “The Marionette Maker”, dogged in his task of breathing life into inert objects, as if it was doctor Frankenstein or even Mary Shelley herself, letting loose her ghosts.
Everything accumulates inside the caravan and nothing seems gratuitous: a large quantity of books, amongst which, a copy of Native American Testimony, by the anthropologist Peter Novolok; anatomy drawings and all sorts of artefacts with visible cables; illustrations of Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift and even a wooden boat that flounders on a white lace dress; old copies of the magazine National Geographic and a large variety of objects, including plates, cups and even an empty can of soup.
“The Marionette Maker” is an oneiric fiction, full of allusions to illusionistic art and magic, literature, kinetic film, to modern dance and Pina Bausch and her introduction of disparate elements. As in many of their previous works, sound, narrative and scenography are very much present. We’ve seen it in previous pieces, when they created a puppet theatre (Playhouse, 1997) or constructed the interior of a miniature cinema (The Paradise Institute, 2001). They also frequently recur to the phantasmagorical and horror, as in the piece the Killing Machine, which formed the title for the exhibition that opened in 2007 at MACBA in Barcelona and which consisted in the recreation of a torture machine. Here the terror is made manifest in the stillness of the principal character, in the absurdity and mystery surrounding the scene and in the sound that accompanies our gaze that concentrates on each and every detail.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are what are called sound artists, and in reality it is sound, along with the idea of theatre and performance, that articulates their works. For John Cage, a pioneer in this artistic discipline, what was important was inserting the individual into the flow of everything that was occurring, so that the spectator would become more receptive to their surroundings. “The Marionette Maker” manages through the synaesthesia of the theatre, music and the noises to generate a narrative capable of stimulating the spectator to weave their own story out of what they see and hear.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)