Opera for a Small Room
Tues, Nov 12, 2013 at 4:43 PM
The drive from your house to mine yesterday was undeniably uncomfortable. I’ve been trying to quantify the thick, heavy distance between us in ways other than inches between the seats but can’t come up with a system objective enough to slam it shut. Calvino once said that “a world without forgetting is hell.” I was trying to push the incident out of my mind when I remembered a book that I found in my mom’s room in highschool about a fisherman who lost his entire family in a freak accident. One night, while clutching at a pair of his late wife’s jeans in grief, the man mused that the gift of forgetting “would be a mercy, an accident.” I wrote that line in the beginning of all my Hilroy journals as a sensational plea to be released from whatever teenage dramas I couldn’t bear to ruminate on anymore. I employed the phrase like a hokey call to the muses. It prompted epic, long confessions designed to be self-declared palette cleansers but which turned out to only be self-indulgent complaints. Did you know that Shakespeare began one of his sonnets: "how can my Muse want subject to invent, While thou dost breathe, that pour'st into my verse Thine own sweet argument?" Have you heard that Borges story about the man who is given Shakespeare’s memory then seeks to rid himself of it because he could no longer make the distinction between the dead writer’s thoughts and his own?
Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe the trouble with living with a memory and occupying its space is that the memory demands to also monopolize yours. I want to be selective about what I keep; I want to remember every minute detail of stories my grandparents tell and every birthday cake I ever blew the candles out on, but I don’t want to see you living in my bathroom while I brush my teeth. I don’t want those fifteen blocks we spent together in the car coming to bed with me.
Cinema is often compared with the sentimental qualities of memory due to its discerning viewpoints, montage effects and dramatized emotion. However, cinema offers more modern conveniences: one can always walk away from the screen and be busied with other activity, while the real-life trappings of recollection don’t allow for one to leave a theatre or turn off a device. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to aesthetics, physical experience and the most cinematic artwork about memory that I’ve seen lately. This summer I took the GoBus to Toronto (you and I weren’t really speaking then) and stayed in the city late to see the Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller show titled Lost in the Memory Palace on the top floor of the the Art Gallery of Ontario (free on Wednesday evenings.) I went with Evan who got high in the parking lot before we got in. The only photo I took of him that day is blurry; he’s standing with his back to me looking at a list of benefactors. He was always rooting for you, you know.
Cardiff and Bures Miller are a Canadian husband and wife duo who’ve been working together since the early 1990’s. Their work consists primarily of installations possessing a strong architectural character (often entire “false rooms”) in which time, perception and atmosphere are altered, allowing for fictional narratives to blend and merge with viewers’ own experiences and memories. Once the artists designed, cooled and lit an entire room to feel like a rainstorm in Japan. Once they filled a room with speakers playing classical music triggered by motion sensors underneath visitors’ feet, or maybe by shadows. I can’t find a link to the work but I jumped and stomped around the room in circles, making the strings section ring every time I smashed my foot and waved my arms. My favourite piece in the show that night was an installation titled Opera For A Small Room (2005).
Opera for a Small Room brings visitors into the imaginary world of R. Dennehy, the former owner of a collection of opera records that the artists discovered at a second-hand store in northern British Columbia. After purchasing the lot of over 2000 albums, (heavily featuring renowned tenors,) the artists built a fictional estimation of Dennehy’s life in the form of a fully furnished living room viewable only from windows, holes in walls and cracks in doorways. Their website gives the following description of the work:
There are twenty-four antique loudspeakers out of which come songs, sounds, arias, and occasional pop tunes. There are almost two thousand records stacked around the room and eight record players, which turn on and off robotically syncing with the soundtrack. The sound of someone moving and sorting albums is heard. The audience cannot enter the room.
The room, like some people (and I mean like you), was something one could be beside but never be surrounded by. The lights flicked on and off. Records were piled on armchairs and side tables. The installation was on a twenty minute loop before the the audio began to repeat itself. I didn’t know how long I could stay before Evan would get bored and want to leave, but I wanted to stay for an hour or more. Cardiff and Bures Miller had constructed a physical site where memory dwells with no apologies or shortcomings. There were no half-truths in the piles upon piles of furniture and records, records themselves of obsessive consumption. At one time, they were all things that R. Dennehy desired enough to acquire and keep.
I posted a photo to Instagram which you never “liked”:
The third part in a series of correspondences.