Janet Cardiff (born 15 March 1957) is a Canaidian installation artist. Born in Brussels, Ontario in 1957 Cardiff studied at Queen's University (BFA) where she graduated in 1980. She also studied at the University of Alberta (MVA)and graduated in 1983. She works in collaboration with her partner George Bures Miller. Cardiff and Miller currently live and work in Berlin. Janet Cardiff first gained international notoriety for her audio walks in 1995.
Cardiff's installations and walking pieces are often audio-based. She has been included in exhibitions such as: Present Tense, Nine Artists in the Nineties, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, NowHere, Louisiana Museum, Denmark, The Museum as Muse, Museum of Modern Art, the Carnegie International '99/00, the Tate Modern Opening Exhibition as well as a project commissioned by Artangel in London. This project ("The Missing Voice (Case Study B)") was commissioned in 1999 and continues to run. It is an audio tour that leaves from the Whitechapel Library, next to the Whitechapel tube stop and snakes its way through London's East End, weaving fictional narrative with descriptions about the actual landscape. Cardiff represented Canada at the São Paulo Art Biennial in 1998, and at the 6th Istanbul Biennial in 1999 with her partner George Bures Miller.
In her Forty Part Motet she placed 40 speakers in 8 groups, each speaker playing a recording of one voice singing Thomas Tallis' Spem in alium, enabling the audience to walk through the space and "sample" individual voices of the polyphonic vocal music. This work is now part of the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. and of Inhotim in Brumadinho, Brazil. A recent mid-career retrospective, Janet Cardiff: A Survey of Works, Including Collaborations with George Bures Miller, opened at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City, Queens, in 2001 and has travelled to Montréal, Oslo, and Turin. Exhibitions in 2006 include Good Vibrations–Le arti visive e il Rock, Palazzo delle Papesse, Centro Arte Contemporanea, Siena, Anticipation, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago and Sonic Presence, Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen, Norway.
In 2005, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution commissioned and exhibited Cardiff's work "Words Drawn in Water".
In Real Time (1999) was the very first video walk that Cardiff created. It took place in the library of the Carnegie Museum of Art and begins with the participant donning a pair of headphones attached to a small video camera. Upon playback Cardiff says to watch the screen and follow along with what we see and hear for approximately 18 minutes. This piece relies on the discrepancies between what is seen on the video monitor and what is actually occurring in the library.
Cardiff and Bures Miller represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennale with Paradise Institute (2001), a 16-seat movie theatre where viewers watched a film, becoming entangled as witnesses to a possible crime played out in the real world audience and on the screen. The artists won La Biennale di Venezia Special Award at Venice, presented to Canadian artists for the first time and the Benesse Prize, recognizing artists who break new artistic ground with an experimental and pioneering spirit. Cardiff and Bures Miller have recently had exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Alberta (2010), Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Scotland (2008) the Miami Art Museum (2007) Vancouver Art Gallery (2005), Luhring Augustine, New York (2004), Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati (2003), Art Gallery of Ontario (2002), National Gallery of Canada (2002) and Oakville Galleries, Oakville, Ontario (2000).
Since their breakthrough exhibition in the Canadian Pavilion at the 2001 Venice Biennale, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have established themselves as two of the most original artists of their generation.
They create large-scale architectural installations, but are also well-known for making art with film, props, light, music and the human voice. Inspired by film noir, thrillers and tales of old dark houses, they tell stories in which real and imaginary elements are so closely woven together that it is impossible to tell which is which.
In less skilful hands, this kind of thing can seem superficial. But Cardiff and Miller are serious artists who explore one of the biggest subjects of all - what art is, what it does, and why we need it so badly.
You can see Opera for a Small Room in the selection of their work from 1991 to 2008 being shown at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Before I describe it, I need to give you one instruction. You must see it from beginning to end, like a concert or a one-act play. It only lasts 20 minutes, but if you arrive in the middle and then catch the start you'll miss half the point.
A wooden shed stands in the middle of the gallery. Looking inside one of its three large windows, we see a makeshift den furnished with a few grubby chairs, a standing lamp, bookshelves, tables and a cheap glass chandelier.
But what strikes you more than anything else is the number of turntables (eight), loudspeakers (24) and a collection of 2,000 or so 33rpm vinyl LPs stacked on shelves, piled on the floor and strewn over every flat surface.
A glance tells us that the room's inhabitant lives alone, that he is dirt poor, and that he spends what money he has on records. The anomalous chandelier perfectly fits our picture of this romantic misfit, whose name, as we learn from the scrawled inscription on the record jackets, was R Dennehy.
That's the set; now for the performance. As the gallery lights dim, we hear the familiar sounds of an audience arriving and the orchestra tuning up.
The lamps in the room come on and the robotically controlled turntables start to play scratchy recordings of arias from Italian operas, beginning with "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore - our first clue that the unfolding story has to do with lost or unrequited love.
Then we hear a man's voice - sad, resigned and infinitely expressive - talking, and sometimes humming along with the aria, as you do when you are all alone.
We gather that there was once a woman in his life who is no longer there. Something happened to her that he can't quite bring himself to describe. We learn that she was "walking near the road with her shoes in her hand" (which suggests that she'd walked out after a lover's quarrel) and that someone (the narrator) was driving his car too fast in a race with a train.
As opera gives way to country and western music and then to Chopin, the narrator edges closer to the memory he's been trying to avoid. "Music don't change anything," he says, "but it helps in some way. It's an opera after all, everyone dies in the end."
Suddenly there is an almighty crack of thunder. The lights sputter and go out. Rain beats down on the roof. A freight train passes so close to the shack that the room shakes and the chandelier sways. The music has now stopped and we hear the soothing voice of a hypnotist telling the listener to "relax, forget everything".
But what follows is the opposite of peace, as we hear the moans of a soul in torment. Whereas the music and monologue were "actual" sounds, this new noise is, I think, imaginary - or rather, internal.
As it continues, all the turntables spin at once, rising to a cacophony that drowns out memories of feelings too painful to be endured. Then the sounds die down, the audience applauds and cheers, and the house lights come up. For 20 minutes we have been inside the tortured conscience of a man we'll never know.
Cardiff and Miller show how music - like all art - can be a source of consolation and of pain. By taking us outside ourselves, it stifles our demons when nothing else, including hypnosis, works. Through music we can experience the suffering and death of lovers without having to endure real pain and loss. But at other times music can cause us to relive things we long to forget.
Is R Dennehy a real person or the artists' invention? The answer is, both. Cardiff and Miller decided to make the piece when they discovered the real Mr Dennehy's record collection for sale in a second-hand shop in a backwoods town in British Columbia.
Intrigued by the number of records and the owner's penchant for Italian opera, they began to reconstruct Dennehy's life-story by examining the LPs in his collection. They imagined him as a hermit, living in a shack near the railroad, hoping to find temporary relief from his anxieties by buying a hypnotist's self-help recording - and when that didn't work, seeking peace in the voices of Callas, Vickers, Tebaldi, Tucker and de los Ángeles.
These two extraordinary artists love to blend fact and fiction, things that actually exist with the stories they make up about them.
(Interview about the fruitmarket gallery show)