Adrian Searle gets it wrong wrong wrong in his analysis of Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller's excellent "The house of books has no windows" exhibition which has upped sticks from Edinburgh's Fruitmarket and moved close enough to London for the esteemed London art critic to bother his behind attending. There's the statutory London bashing out of the way. Lovely. I saw this exhibition in Edinburgh and have rattled on about it at length already but some of Searle's arguments are ill-construed and occasionally just plain wrong.
Firstly the Killing Machine, the “interactivity” (the installation is activated by pressing a mundane red button, like you might find on a building site) which Searle derides in an infantile manner is entirely the point. It is an effective and vivid statement about capital punishment and the public discourse in the
And on we go to the risible notion that Opera for a Small Room is less successful than a Tom Waits song. It’s a little tragic when art critics start talking about music, especially when they appropriate Waits’ vocal affectations (“He don’t need no etc…). If anything Opera… evokes the more recent work of any number of Godspeed! You Black Emperor/Silver Mount Zion projects. There’s doom, regret and isolation in the narrators voice, Waits’ world teems with humanity, his lonely songs sung when everyone’s gone home, not alone in the dark in a shed with an owl. The real treat, as in the Killing Machine, is in the clanking eccentric mechanics of the piece (in a way, this is where Bures Miller & Cardiff actually do share something with Waits)- the way that automation is used to create an unnerving post-human atmosphere in both pieces contributes to the eerie, uncanny atmosphere that both pieces but particularly Opera for a Small Room, evoke. When left to themselves the machines will find their own way to express themselves, recontextualising the work of long-disappeared humanity.
It appears that Searle didn’t even bother to go back for a second look at the Dark Pool which is packed with funny/silly/spooky little details, a tense repetition of words chopped out from books that become a declaration of love laid on a musty old jewellery box, a patented wishing machine, fractious back-and-forth arguments to be listened to through ear trumpets, scratchy radios evoking Dorothy’s deserted home after the tornado in Kansas. All of this is done from memory and it’s months since I’ve seen the work. Perhaps Searle has tasted and tested too much. Dark Pool was lovely, a bit impenetrable at first but I returned to it a number of times over the months it was at Fruitmarket such was the “purchase” it made on my imagination.
The final and most glaring oversight in Searle’s review is that he doesn’t once mention the title piece “The House of Books Has No Windows”, perhaps he walked sniffily past thinking that a big house made of books doesn’t merit the Guardian art critics attention. And that is his loss. This is the newest piece and was commissioned by the Fruitmarket and Modern Art Oxford specifically for these exhibitions! encapsulates a lot of what they’re about beyond the mechanics and the creaks. It’s a house, made of books, with no windows. I loved it, climbing inside the door was profoundly moving, an immediate, emotional experience that evokes the disappeared who once owned the books, the smell of the books triggering memories of clearing out the houses of the dead, the moldering smell of disuse, obsolescence and forgetting, the slow impassive solitary death of objects as a counterpoint to our own messy, rapid and smelly fate. If you want quiet, undirected understatement