Hearing a late famous poet recite his own verses as if he were sitting right next to you, watching marionettes deliver a touching performance with no puppeteer pulling the strings, seeing the beauty of the world with the eyes of a loved one who passed away: three works in the show, each occupying a separate gallery room, deliver these experiences with the help of technology.
The Poetry Machine, is a vintage organ whose 122 keys are attached to a motley crew of speakers transmitting Leonard Cohen’s voice reading a different poem with each key that is touched. Interacting with the device felt like a séance: a husky-timbred oracle delivered messages that resonated with my emotions. The crisp and enveloping HiFi sound of the recordings made the invisible Cohen’ presence so convincing I’ll never again read his poems without it resonating in my mind.
Next door, Sad Waltz and the Dancer Who Couldn’t Dance, features two robots pulling the strings of puppets: a female dancer performing to a piano piece by Armenian composer Edward Mirzoyan, and the man who plays the instrument. I watched as the device awkwardly threw the dancer to the floor, her arms helplessly entangled in her own strings. Poignant and sorrowful music endowed an otherwise farcical moment.
Finally, a computer-operated slide projector rotates photographs by Bures Miller’s late grandfather, mostly sublime North American landscapes documented on his road trip to see a cancer specialist. The careful attention to detail and palpable admiration for the fleeting effects of light and shadow reveal the wisdom of a man who knows his time is running out but chooses not to hurry.
Although these works could not work without technology, I resented the devices, perhaps due to the emotional effects of each piece being too powerful to be produced by machines.
The highest virtue of Cardiff and Bures Miller’s works is that they prompted me, ironically through another machine,to call the loved ones who are still around, to order available books of Leonard Cohen’s poetry and to look up more music by Edward Mizroyan, all with the help of my IPhone. At a time when technology has become unavoidable, perhaps the best we can do is, just like Cardiff and Bures Miller, to employ it in ways that make us feel more human.
Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: The Poetry Machine and Other Works continues at Fraenkel Gallery (59 Geary Street, 4th Floor, San Francisco) through July 5th
Volume 32 no 6 July/August 2018 p 34