Let me take you back to the Ständehaus, to another dark room, this one spider-free (as far as I could tell) but filled with “atmosphere”, carefully crafted to chill. I will borrow the description from the back of the exhibit’s post card, since it captures the room wonderfully: “An old wooden door opens onto a kind of study. Disarranged, it is filled with books containing scientific diagrams, essays on paranormal phenomena and handwritten scribbling. The scene is illuminated by weak light from electric bulbs. Apparently, the room’s inhabitant has just taken leave of it. In his/her stead, exhibition visitors are invited to seat themselves at the table and leaf through the books. Their movements trigger the installation’s soundtrack. The effect is disturbing and enigmatic. Different voices, which draw the visitor into their spell, narrate the tale of a mysterious abyss known as the Dark Pool. Nor is the mystery solved, moreover, by the miniature depiction of the pool in a suitcase.”
Now put yourself in front of that door – faded paint and a knob darkened by time but worn smooth by countless touches – and pull it open. The long, perfect squeal of hinges gives you chills, setting the tone for the room to follow. At first, darkness rules, pushed back as your eyes adjust by the warm glow of a few bare bulbs. Mixed in with the refuse of forgotten lives are the artifacts described by the blurb above – the halo of light draws you to the central table, where an unfinished meal sits waiting for the return of its owner. Half-finished notes fill open journals and a variety of “scientific” equipment takes you back a century or so. As you peruse the books, ghostly voices rise out of the darkness – one simply counts, upwards, in painful clarity, but the creepiness factor is through the roof. Move on to the chair – perhaps The Chair is more appropriate, as it sits carefully placed between two huge archaic horns, each attached to some homemade apparatus. As you sit, out of the silence comes another crystal clear voice – a woman, seeking someone nearby who she cannot see. Feel the shivers down your spine as a male voice answers in your other ear, then listen, rapt, as they carry on a conversation which feels timeless and tragic – they sound like the occupants of adjacent cells whispering to each other through an air vent, but their words carry so much emotion that it unnerves you. As they fall silent, you move on to a wishing machine, where your written wish triggers yet another hair-raising experience. By the time you have worked your way around the room you feel like you are a part of some great mystery, and you may be saddened to leave without answer. I know I was, but then I am going back later this week, to try to shed a little more light on this dark tale.
This is the world created by artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller (1994) – a mystery still not “explained” after a second visit – which I consider a good thing. This is interactive art at its best – it may sound at first pass like a haunted house, but it isn’t cheap thrills or dangling skeletons which jump out to grab you. The care with which the exhibit was created, down to the smallest detail, tells a story which you can’t quite grasp. The backdrop to the voices is magnificent –from the stained mattress jammed crookedly into one corner; The steel clothes rack with vaguely human shapes hanging from its rusted bars; The battered tables straining under piles of books and equipment, an unruly collection which hints at the distracted mind of the room’s occupant(s), all creating a deep and deeply creepy background to the haunting voices, broken conversations which make the visitor feel like an unwilling voyeur – uncomfortable but unable to turn away. I am glad to say that my second visit was as intense and rewarding as my first! I wonder if I have time to drop in one more time before I head south to Stuttgart…
Check out Cardiff Miller for more about the artists and their amazing work!