Cardiff's Ship of Fools an exercise in illusion

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's Ship Of Fools will unfold inside a Chinese junk, set up in Toronto's Trinity-Bellwoods Park as part of the Luminato Festival.
George Bures Miller and Janet Cardiff at the doorway of Ship Of Fools. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)
Janet Cardiff and life partner George Bures Miller have worked collaboratively for the last 15 years — but they don't always see eye to eye.

Cardiff, for example, wants the sound cycle for their new interactive work, Ship of Fools, to be about two minutes long; Miller thinks it should be more like 10.

"I think we'll end up with four minutes," Cardiff says during a recent interview, as the two were making final preparations for the piece. "It's good the way we work together — we disagree but we agree."

The work will unfold inside a Chinese junk, set up in Toronto's Trinity-Bellwoods Park as part of the Luminato Festival. But as the two completed it earlier this week, they were constantly testing what would and wouldn't work in an installation that combines high technology and pure whimsy.

"We do a lot of editing," says Miller. "I'll try something, Janet will try it and if it's better the way she did it, we'll go with that, or vice versa."

Ship of Fools features a cacophony of noises, engineered by the sound and robotics wizards that are part of their regular crew of assistants. There is the thrum of a ship's engine, the creaking of wood that gives the illusion the boat is in motion, a heartbeat of a bass drum, an old radio playing a sea shanty and a robot violin player. The trick of the creative process is to lure the visitor into the dozens of small dramas set up inside.

George Bures Miller and Janet Cardiff with the Chinese junk before starting its conversion. (Luminato)
"We wanted to create a feeling that you were going into another world. We had this idea of this underworld," says Cardiff, who likes to articulate the theoretical underpinnings of her works.

Like so many of their collaborations, Ship of Fools is about fooling the senses with sound and with light.

"When [people] first enter in, they would be expecting to see what you would normally find in a ship — beds and a galley and a little toilet," Cardiff says. "But what we decided to do was create a maze that made them go to the right and to the left and then back again and thus create a space that was much bigger than it actually was."

Born in Brussels, Ont., Cardiff leaped into public recognition in the mid-1990s with her audio walks, including Forest Walk for the Banff Centre, MOMA Walk for New York's Museum of Modern Art and Ghost Machine for the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. She and Miller, who comes from Vegreville, Alta., collaborated on The Paradise Institute, a video and sound installation produced for the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001, and The Forty-Part Motet, which showed at the National Gallery in Ottawa. The couple split their time between Berlin and rural B.C.

Although they'd shared ideas before, their first major collaboration was The Dark Pool (1995), the recreation of a workshop where two people, apparently in mid-task, have got up and left. It was a work they had discussed so often that neither of them now remembers the genesis. Ship of Fools, commissioned by Luminato, is a continuation of The Dark Pool and Opera for a Small Room (2005), because it's a sculptural work chock full of sound and of diverse items.

Cardiff and Miller chose the title Ship of Fools impulsively before researching the history of the phrase. It appears in literature in the 15th century, in Sebastian Brant's story about a fleet of ships that sets off from Basel to search for the paradise of fools. The allegory has been repeated often in art, film and literature.

"It's quite an apt metaphor for the world for the last 15 years in a certain way, but I don't think this piece is political in that way. We did start out thinking of that, but it's changed to be sort of fun," Miller says.

Cardiff disagrees — she believes the piece actually reflects some of that history, in the sense of a ship floating rudderless, without a captain and without direction.

Inside their ship is a galaxy of small worlds, all of them in motion: a see-saw with an elephant on one end and a pig on the other; a man in a living room with a dolphin; a smoke machine that fills and empties; a circus acrobat; a wave pool, and a system of pulleys that operates a machine that does nothing.

The natural objects are taken from the river near their B.C. home, combined with sculptures they have made themselves or commissioned from their crew of collaborators.

Inside the ship, a violin plays amid a cacophony of other sounds. (Luminato)
Says Cardiff, "We got together a couple of the people that we work with regularly and we said to them, 'We want to make machines that are completely nonsensical.' The inspiration came from playing with a child at the beach and the way they make these things — children just know how to make silly things and sometimes you just forget how to make silly things and why you want to."

She sees that notion of a factory for silly machines as an allegory for the making of installation art.

"When you live in Europe, you realize [artists] have a function in society, but in North America, art-making is seen as a bit of a pointless activity. That came into these people making illusory objects," she said.

The junk itself is an impulse purchase they bought on eBay from a Montreal owner. The nine-metre boat made of teak is a real Chinese junk, built in Hong Kong in 1970. It arrived with its exterior intact, though somewhat weathered. The interior, however, had apparently been trashed by vandals.

"We bought it sight unseen except for a few photos. It was a mess. I felt like we were the fools," Miller quips. It also proved too wide for normal highway travel, so the truck bringing it to Ontario had to be accompanied by a pilot vehicle.

Though it was audio and video installations that brought Cardiff to international attention, she's begun moving away from those kinds of works, preferring now to work with physical props for a more immersive experience.

"We would do these projects and you would spend six months working on it and it would disappear," Miller says.

"Because you can't transfer it to another space," Cardiff continues, finishing his sentence. "Whereas objects like this you can show at different festivals over the years."

The Dark Pool, which they refuse to sell, has been shown repeatedly around the world. And the Art Gallery of Ontario is presenting Cardiff's 1991 work, The Whispering Room, from June 9 to Sept. 26 in honour of Luminato's Ship of Fools.

Ship of Fools is already signed up to show in Berlin at a later date yet to be determined.

Before the Friday opening, Cardiff and Miller are co-ordinating a team of sculptors and sound designers, including Robyn Moody, Carlo Crovato, Gordon Fuller, Titus Maderlechner and Mitch Chan, and simultaneously keeping an eye on daughter Aradhana. Cardiff believes the child has helped intensify their creative process.

"It's added to it — watching her for sure," says Cardiff. "The way she approaches painting, the way she approaches work in the sand. You realize that when you go through art school — and I used to teach at university — everything's theoretical and laboured. It's kind of nice to see the freshness of a child, and I think we're capturing that in the boat."

Miller, however, disagrees.

"I don't think it's changed the way we work. It's made it more difficult in some ways to work, but our work has always been playful and childish."

Ship of Fools is on display June 11-20 at Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto.


Susan Noakes

Former senior writer and editor

Susan Noakes was a senior writer and news editor with CBC News. She spent five years at newspapers in Hong Kong and has worked for the Toronto Star and Asian Wall Street Journal. At CBC, she has covered arts, science and business.