The Paradise Institute

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An unidentified man enters a room, sits down in his favorite chair and begins reading a murder mystery. The book follows another man as he crosses a twilit park, encounters the gates of a large house, enters the house and kills the man who sits reading the book. The plot of a brilliantly succinct short story by the Argentine Julio Cortazar, the tale, titled "Continuity of Parks," folds space and time into an ambiguous but revealing puzzle. Parallel times, simultaneity, the dizzyingly labyrinthine structures of mind and memory?all these are suggested by a bizarre scenario that plummets down consciousness' bottomless well. A cage-rattling shakeup of normal perspective, the story recalls another work of metaphysical fiction, this one penned by Jorge Luis Borges. "Time forks perpetually towards innumerable futures," Borges has a character say in "The Garden of the Forking Paths." "In one of them I am your enemy."

Canadian artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller scour some of the same enigmatic and existential real estate as writers like Cortazar and Borges, and now have brought to Chelsea a fascinatingly layered 13-minute sound and video installation that is, unlike a lot of multimedia work seen in New York recently, both high concept and high definition. Exhibited last year at the 49th Venice Biennial where it won the coveted Premio Prize, Cardiff and Miller's newest work, The Paradise Institute, presents visual, aural and philosophical conundrums inside a 16-seat, lifesize cinema the artists built inside the gallery.

The structure's covered in prosaic plywood on the outside; the inside brims with detail lifelike enough to recall the space of a real theater. A set of stairs leads to a full-sized balcony with velvet seats, wine-colored carpet and old-time wooden molding. The space below presents the illusion of an auditorium with a fool-the-eye set of miniature seats and a screen constructed using hyper-perspective. A pair of headphones hangs from the back of each chair. Placing them on one's head triggers a trip that melds diverging, convergent and parallel narratives into an experience so disorienting that it is possible to describe it both as profoundly conscious and distinctly out of body.

Recorded inside a real-size theater space in "surround sound," the installation's soundscape begins to sow sensory chaos the minute the lights go down. The character's speeches are interrupted by talking and movement that seem to take place right behind one's head. A cellphone rings (making most audience members instinctively reach for their coat pockets), prying open the eyes of the movie's bedridden character. A woman whispers lovingly in one's ear. There is the sound of a dress unzipping. Minutes later, as the nurse in the film story kisses the patient's chest, a male voice in the audience comments wryly: "That's excellent nursing." The muffled laughter of the theater is so realistic that one is tempted to join in.

On the screen, Cardiff and Miller present a set of fragmented noirish images that defy structured sense but are iconic enough to mine the immense vault of collective experience that is movie history. There's the woman running down the darkened hallway; the raking image of a landscape captured from a low-flying plane; a shot of the road lit dimly by two headlights; the train station scene. Each of these substitutes distant, nearly locatable memory for connected narrative, the power of endless suggestion for the equally powerful but less enigmatic method of straight storytelling. Joined together in the theater with the installation's aural component, The Paradise Institute presents an experience whose purpose is chiefly to break down limits, both rational and sensory. The installation not only blurs the distinction between narrative sense and nonsense, it also breaks down the boundaries that exist between the actors in the film and the observers in the audience.

The Cardiff and Miller collaborative is one of only a select group of multimedia artists who have pioneered the use of vernacular forms like literature and film in their art. Taking their material from the world instead of the art world, Cardiff and Miller create an art capable of speaking volumes to the initiated and uninitiated alike. The fact that they ignore, for example, the stubbornly anti-object legacy of conceptualism to build a theme-park environment ensures their work wide-ranging communicative possibilities. The fact that they locate a lingua franca of dream, memory and desire within the cliches of cinema enables them to tap further into a shared history that spans worlds and centuries (even though cinema is only 107 years old, it is one of the primary tools through which human beings imagine or reimagine their past). And lastly, the fact that the artists locate the crux of their phenomenological investigations where the imagination, nearly anyone's imagination, can enter, guarantees them access to the most fundamental part of their audience's nature: normal, everyday, democratic human perception.

But if you don't need a PhD in curatorial studies to become entangled in Cardiff and Miller's heady conceptual gamesmanship, their latest work mines some of the most complex and trenchant questions concerning human consciousness with rare deftness and sophistication. Does the narrative of The Paradise Institute take place in the future or in the past? Who does it happen to? Where in the installation does the difference between the inside and the outside lie? The answer, like in Dalton Trumbo's fabulous film Johnny Got His Gun, is that the whole experience occurs in one place only: inside one's head.

"The rhetoric around illusionism hasn't really changed since the Renaissance," Janet Cardiff told an interviewer on the occasion of the unveiling of The Paradise Institute in Venice last year. "People were amazed at linear perspective and then everybody got used to that and then there was the hyper reality of photography, and then stereo photography, film, and virtual reality. Every generation discovers and understands a way of looking in a different, progressive way but we're really talking about the same question." That question, presumably, has to do with mind and body, reality and its apprehension. By constructing an aural and visual "cubist narrative" in which the viewer is the central, most essential component of the work, Cardiff and Miller establish a field of illusions whose results echo John Lennon's famously compacted walrus gibberish: "I am he as you are he and we are all together."

The Paradise Institute, through April 27 at Luring Augustine, 531 W. 24th St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 206-9100.

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