Lost in Paradise

By NGC Magazine Staff on April 24, 2013

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Paradise Institute [detail] (2001), DVD player, video projector, electronic controls, amplifier, film screen, 16 headsets, 13:00 minute digital video disk (DVD), 16 theatre seats, synthetic carpet, halogen and incandescent lamps, wood, plywood, retail trade oil paint, polystyrene and fabric, 3 x 12 x 5.1 m. NGC. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2002 

From the outside it doesn’t look like much: a modest and unadorned plywood box. Yet, when contemporary art curator and sculptor David Norr first experienced The Paradise Institute by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller at the 2001 Venice Biennale, his encounter with the multimedia installation was so profound that he never forgot it. “I remember standing in line for three and a half hours,” he says. “It was steamy-hot, and once we walked into this very nice, darkened theatre space, I just remember being so happy after seeing that piece. It has so many layers in it,” Norr says. “That’s also a skill Janet and George have: telling stories in a way that is very deep, that is very profound. It’s memorable, it’s haunting, and it’s just a very rare experience, I think, in contemporary art.”

Inside the plywood structure, viewers are transported to the 1930s by lush movie house decor with velvet seating. During a 13-minute mixed-genre projection, visitors wearing individual headsets are immersed in multiple storyline narratives, sounds and dialogue—some coming from the screen in fragmented narratives and others, such as a ringing cell phone and a whispering voice, seeming to come from inside the room. In The Paradise Institute (a work of art that is part of the National Gallery of Canada’s collection and is currently touring through the Art Network program), there is no clear boundary between memory, reality and imagination.

Cardiff (b. 1957) and Miller (b. 1960)—established solo artists who started collaborating in the mid-1990s—went on to win a prestigious Biennale di Venezia Special Prize that year, for "involving the audience in a new cinematic experience in which fiction and reality, technology and the body converge into multiple and shifting journeys through space and time.” Yet, unlike other works by the internationally recognized artists, The Paradise Institute has not often been exhibited in the United States—partly because it’s a large work and complicated to install.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Paradise Institute [detail] (2001), DVD player, video projector, electronic controls, amplifier, film screen, 16 headsets, 13:00 minute digital video disk (DVD), 16 theatre seats, synthetic carpet, halogen and incandescent lamps, wood, plywood, retail trade oil paint, polystyrene and fabric, 3 x 12 x 5.1 m. NGC. Gift of an anonymous donor, 2002

In 2011, Norr became Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland (MOCA). At the time, MOCA was preparing for its October 2012 move into a new space: a nearly 34,000-square-foot structure created by world-renowned architect Farshid Moussavi.

Planning the opening in their newly designed building, Norr knew he wanted to introduce these two Canadian artists and one of their masterpieces to audiences in Cleveland. “This particular piece is just such a rare experience,” he says. “It’s a sculpture, it’s a sound piece, it’s a film. It’s been really fun to watch audiences walk in and out of this very simple plywood box.”

Also currently on view at MOCA Cleveland are the performance-based works of American artist Kate Gilmore who, similarly to Cardiff and Miller, focuses on the realm of psychological experience. “It’s a great duo,” says Norr. “What we wanted to focus on this season was this idea of how audiences experience works of art, and the range of tactics that artists use to try to get audiences engaged in a new way of thinking about what they’re doing and what they’re seeing.”

MOCA Cleveland © Dean Kaufman, courtesy MOCA Cleveland

At a time when museums and art galleries are struggling to maintain and increase visitor attendance, it has become critical to shift the focus to visitors, developing innovative ways of prompting dialogue about artists’ works, while also encouraging people to think through culture in new ways. Miller and Cardiff have managed to do just that. “They’re a duo of artists who think about the audience, and they also think about how to keep people engaged with their work,” says Norr, “I find them to be not only exemplary artists in the broadest sense, but also very skilled at thinking about how to engage audience members in very particular ways, as well as in ways that will be effective and transformative and powerful. And they do it every time.”

The Paradise Institute is on view at MOCA Cleveland until 9 June. This spring, Clevelanders will also have an opportunity to view Janet Cardiff’s sound sculpture Forty-Part Motet (also part of the National Gallery’s collection) at the Cleveland Museum of Art, from 4 May to 9 June. And for those closer to home who are seeking unexpected sensory experiences, don’t miss the AGO’s selected survey of Cardiff and Miller’s work, Lost in the Memory Palace, currently on view until 18 August.  


By NGC Magazine Staff| April 24, 2013
Categories:  Exhibitions

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