In ‘The Gothic’, Gilda Williams’ introductory essay defines “Gothic” as a “borrowed term in contemporary art, applied liberally to artworks centering on death, deviance, the erotic macabre, psychologically charged sites, disembodied voices and fragmented bodies” (Williams, p.12). Wisps of the elements listed above are often associated with the work of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. For example, Kimmelman describes their ‘Paradise Institute’ (2001) as “slyly gothic” in his article for The New York Times, and on Cardiff and Miller’s website, ‘Pandemonium’ (2005) located in the Eastern State Penitentiary, is depicted as “gothic [with] castle-like towers”. ‘The Murder of Crows’ (2008), ‘The Paradise Institute’ (2001) and all of Cardiff’s audio walking tours “provid[e] mere cues to narratives—narratives housed in culture, especially genre (such as the gothic)—which can only be finished subliminally, in viewers’ psyches” according to David Blaze in ‘Canadian Art Review’. Justin Davidson discusses Cardiff’s ‘Forty-Part Motet’ (2001) as “a massive work of musical architecture in which eight groups of five singers meet and diverge like the ribs in a Gothic vault”, whereas ‘The Dark Pool’ (1995) and ‘The Muriel Lake Incident’ (1999) “[are] wryly comic, [with] self-consciously mannered, gothic narrative alluding to pulp films and dime-store novels” writes Daniel Baird for ‘Contemporary Art Center’.
In ‘An Intimate Distance Riddled with Gaps: The Art of Janet Cardiff’, Caryoln Christov-Bakargiev highlights how Cardiff’s ‘The Missing Voice: Case Study B’ (1999) is situated in London’s Whitechapel, infamously linked to Jack the Ripper’s haunts. The two “Janets” on this walk, scary childhood memories, abduction, references to being blind-folded, naked and watched, dead bodies, fragmented narratives, science fiction and haunted houses in theme parks, all allude to the Gothic genre’s central themes of madness, the subconscious, eroticism, sexual violence, terror and darkness.
In his article on the ‘Modern Gothic’, Jerry Saltz compounds his statement that “the best Modern Gothic art is way more than Gothic” by stating that “most art that is primarily Gothic… always has been schlock” as “it’s campy, corny, nostalgic… [where] cheap thrills and clichés predominate”. These are challenges that I face in my own work and is exactly why I am so intrigued by Cardiff and Miller, whose art surpasses any stagnant tendencies with its inventive, multi-sensory and technologically sophisticated components.
The potency of Cardiff’s (and Miller’s) work can largely be attributed to experiments with sound that create spaces playing with: cinematic cues and language, emotionally manipulative music, intimacy achieved by narration that melds subjectivity, confusion of outer and inner reality, using a hushed, dreamy voice disclosing personal fears, desires and memories, and a fragmented script which leaves the audience in a permanent state of suspense. The work’s playfulness is not exclusively confined to sound explorations, however, and is often combined with video and sculptural installations (Christov-Bakargiev, 2001).
In ‘Janet Cardiff’, Christov-Bakargiev conveniently groups the artist’s complex works, including her collaborations with husband Miller, thematically and discusses elements of the walks, fictions, intimacies and identities comprising it. The Walks are described as “re-envelopment in a surrogate persona’s universe” (Christov-Bakargiev, p.20) and structured using a specific route, layers of sound and improvised scripts. As one experiences the artwork alone, in a location chosen by the artist, Janet’s instructions (perhaps alluding to a Feminist concept of a woman being in control) delivered via headphones (so, inside your head), lead you on a path that allows you to surrender and merge with her. Psychologically, although actively engaged with the physical and audio aspects of the experience created within the work, the audience is simultaneously assigned a passive role, which again can reference the traditional (gender) power structure, while being perceived as erotic. The binaural recordings of music, environmental noise and dramatic sounds like gunshots and footsteps, superimposed on the existing situational ones, blur the distinctions of internal and external realities. The voice the audience listens to, often Janet’s and often quiet, doesn’t just guide you geographically, but describes visuals that can be real or imagined, seen by the audience or by the narrator and shares personal memories, confessions and feelings, thus heightening the intimate relationship. Sometimes there is an element of voyeurism, as one overhears dialogues and dreams and a trance-like state is created by the rhythm of walking, interspersed by pauses and stops in allocated spots. As Janet’s voice is internally located (headphones), the fluidity of subjectivity implies a post-modern notion of self (Christov-Bakargiev, 2001).
Cardiff’s fiction in her work, references the Science Fiction genre (one that has connections with the Gothic, such as Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’) in literature and film and is an important influence. Ideas ranging from sound-scapes sampled from movies, to fantasies of “living in a futuristic surveillance society” (Christov-Bakargiev, p, 27), all form a part of the narrative and are traversed in nuanced layers. When I personally asked Janet to comment on themes of the Gothic and Feminism (ideas relevant to my research) in contemporary work, she mentioned the writings of Angela Carter, especially her book entitled “The Bloody Chamber and other stories”. In these short stories, Carter (also a fan of Science Fiction) “revisions” traditional fairy tales “that deal directly with the imagery of the unconscious” and, like Cardiff, explores women’s desires, sadomasochistic relationships, sexual violence, gender hierarchies but also seduces the reader with “imaginative pleasure” in vividly sensuous surroundings (Simpson, 2006). Feminist efforts to bring the private into the public realm, may also contribute to the intimacy that permeates so much of Cardiff’s work. By whispering phrases like “When I’m so close, I can smell the warmth of your neck” Cardiff seduces the audience into a private space, within a public setting (Christov-Bakargiev, 2001).
In their introduction to ‘Postfeminist Gothic’, Brabon and Genz outline the term as one that “revitalizes Gothic and feminist criticism and invites new perspectives beyond the theories of the second wave and the Female Gothic” (2007). In my conversation with Janet Cardiff, we discussed the compelling Feminist ideas of the 70s and the need to go beyond them in contemporary artwork that must broach the subject in an inventive way. I feel that the ‘Postfeminist Gothic’ discourse can be a fertile ground for my research, enabling me to incorporate multi-layered concepts of the subversive and occult, the dramatic, sensuous and excessive, the exotic, evocative and escapist, and ultimately “otherness” and all its non-conformist hybrids. Interestingly, the Gothic can be seen as and aesthetic undermining the academic conceptualism binding contemporary art (Williams, 2007).
On a personal level, some of the ideas driving my own practice, stem from feeling trapped in an isolated existence, lacking in stimulation and pleasure on many levels, in a society that is patriarchal, commercial and controlling. The “smallness” of my life confines me to a limited experience, and so a neurotic and self-obsessive relationship with myself, as well as a claustrophobic sense of space emerges in some of my work. I have also looked to occult philosophies that challenge the dogmatic views indoctrinating the inferiority of women but have perhaps expressed these influences clumsily and too literally. My involvement in “rescuing” stray animals over the last fifteen years has certainly put me in touch with the dark side of humanity. I also relate to the post-modernist idea of being completely alienated culturally, because of my particular background, which makes “otherness” very relevant. Having said all this, the Gothic aesthetic, with its air of mystery and drama and celebration of unconscious impulses also offers many opportunities to explore a lush language of sensory stimuli. The work of Cardiff and Miller have certainly expanded the landscape of possibilities for me, in navigating the genre with more awareness and tools that defy falling prey to interpreting it, in too limited a way.
“The Gothic remains non-, anti-, and counter- by definition, always asserting that the conventional values of life and enlightenment are actually less instructive than darkness and death.” (Williams, p.19)
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