It’s not hard to name couples, past and present, in which wife and husband have each excelled in the visual arts. Think Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Dorothy Knowles and William Perehudoff, Rachel Feinstein and John Currin. But couples who have functioned or function as artistic teams? They’re much rarer. Foremost among the species in Canada are Janet Cardiff, ’83 MVA, and George Bures Miller, who have been close collaborators since 1981 when both enrolled as master’s candidates in what is now the Department of Art & Design at the U of A. She was 23 at the time, an aspiring printmaker from southwestern Ontario; he was 20, from Vegreville, Alta., and keen to paint and sculpt. Today, married 30 years with a six-year-old daughter, Aradhana, they’re among the few Canadians berthed in the upper echelons of the contemporary international art world. And they’ve done it not through painting portraits or silkscreening prints but by building what Kitty Scott, contemporary and modern art curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario, calls “alternate worlds — of sound, space and time — that viewers can, at least for a few moments, lose themselves in and become time travellers, space explorers.” Theirs is “a unique ability,” she enthuses, “offering us challenging, beautiful, immersive experiences.”
Scott recently co-curated at the AGO a critically acclaimed and wildly popular mini-retrospective of sorts of the couple’s technology-driven, mixed-media oeuvre, a labyrinth of seven dimly lit, often spooky rooms, collectively (and evocatively) titled Lost in the Memory Palace. Included in the exhibition on another floor was perhaps Cardiff’s most famous solo work, The Forty-Part Motet. Conceived in 2001 — the same year the couple shot to international attention by winning the 2001 Biennale di Venezia Special Award for a multimedia installation called The Paradise Institute — it featured 40 mounted loudspeakers arranged in an inward-facing ellipse. Each speaker “contained” the voice of a single chorister singing his or her parts in Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century masterpiece of spiritual exaltation, Spem in Alium. Visitors either hunkered down by one speaker or wandered from sound source to sound source or, as was most often the case, sat in the middle of the ellipse to bliss out on the polyphony ricocheting around them.
After lengthy stints in Toronto, Lethbridge, Alta., and Berlin, home for the last eight years has been “out in the middle of nowhere.” This would be Grindrod, a village near Salmon Arm in the B.C. Interior. There they’ve built a large studio where they work, undistracted, with two full-time studio assistants and four part-timers. Of course, being international superstars creating intricate installations and site-specific events that require their personal attention means you’re more likely to find them in Paris or Kassel, Madrid, Brumadinho or Istanbul. Indeed, the duo have enough commissions to take them well into 2016. Luckily, their imaginations remain engaged and stockpiled with a seemingly limitless flow of ideas. As Bures told the New York Times last year: “We’ve been trying to escape reality for, like, 35 years. It’s been going OK so far.”