Opera for a Small Room

Ishita Kapur Professor Melissa Ragona Contemporary Art History, 60206 15 April, 2009 Opera for a Small Room “Opera for a Small Room” is a time-based mixed-media installation by Canadian artists, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The mixed media includes sound, record players, records and synchronized lighting. It is exhibited in “a small room”, 2. 6 x 3 x 4. 5m, and plays in a 20-minute loop. This piece constructs a hyper realistic narrative centered on the character R. Dennehy. Dennehy is believed to have lived almost his entire life, in British Columbia, Canada. He was a collector of opera records.

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Cardiff and Miller purchased all of these records, from a second-hand store in Salmon Arm. Cardiff and Miller have used their creative license to interpolate the details of Dennehy’s life and create this theatrical installation. In their book, “The Secret Hotel”, they describe their intentionality, “We are interested in the extreme cultural juxtaposition between opera and the small western town in which R. Dennehy lived” (Cardiff, Miller 77). They created a fictional narrative to justify his existence. This included his love for music as well as the tragic loss of a wife or lover, and his efforts to find consolation in opera music.

My goal is to discuss the various time-based aspects of this mixed-media installation, critique the creative decisions made by the artists and evaluate the strength of the performance. The primary ordering structure used to establish the storyline and immediately grab the audience’s attention is Dennehy’s compelling narrative. In the opening excerpt, you hear a man’s voice from the megaphone, “In the middle of the stage, a man sits alone in a room filled with speakers, amplifiers and records” (Opera for a Small Room).

Thus, the soundtrack introduces Dennehy’s character and places him in the small room, and you start to piece together Dennehy’s world. “Opera for a Small Room” explores duration qualities through its transforming narrative and the accompanying light and audio. While the piece plays in a 20-minute loop in clock time, it displaces the time context for the viewer and successfully narrates a significantly longer tragic excerpt from the life of Royal Dennehy. Multiple times through he performance, you hear the voice on the megaphone say about his lover, “Where the fuck is she going? ” (Opera for a Small Room). The use of repetition builds up the anticipation, and in this case, gives a sense of the impending tragedy in the plot, the approaching moment of Dennehy’s loss. Cardiff and Miller’s mixed-media installation incorporates animated movements, and edited and recorded movements, as is characteristic of time-based work. The performance includes subtleties, such as the slight shaking of the chandelier due to simulation of environmental effects.

You can also occasionally see a shadow against the back wall of the room, supposedly Dennehy pacing or changing the music. The lights are used quite spectacularly through the 20 minutes, to emulate the crescendos and the diminuendos of the opera. The sequential and synchronized fading or turning on or off of the lights is effective in creating Dennehy’s melancholy existence. The music and the soundtrack are a central element of “Opera in a Small Room”. The room is equipped with twenty-four old-fashioned loud speakers, and there are also speakers on the outside, in the bigger room.

The sounds design also includes environmental sounds such as garden bugs and the sound of an approaching train. As the music changes, you hear the sounds of movement, flipping through records, and occasionally, heavy breathing, adding richness to the narrative. The psychedelic and aural accompaniment is a critical aspect of time-based media using new technology, and Cardiff and Miller have set up that quite skillfully. The opera and the lighting create startling and effective transitions, to support Dennehy’s theatrical narrative of his life.

The attention to detail in the small room is incredibly exquisite. Thousands of records are arranged around the room to create the feel of an old attic, and there are eight record players that play into the animated movement by switching on and off as the music transitions. The proximity of the small room to the audience, and the environmental sound design creates an enveloping and intimate experience for the audience. However, since you cannot enter the room, you realize that you are still, only a spectator to Dennehy’s pseudo-biography.

I think the setup is a balance between opening up Dennehy’s world to us, and maintaining its desolation and privacy. In the Carnegie Museum of Art, the small room exhibited inside a bigger room, with no lights turned on. While this further created a displacement in space and time, I felt that the outer room was underutilized in terms of visual components. This may not be a part of the original exhibition. At first, on learning that the narrative was fictional, I was skeptical and felt that this piece was weaker in concept because of its detachment from a real reference.

However, after reconsidering it, I think that while the details are based on Cardiff and Miller’s imagination, it is nonetheless, an absorbing storyline, that is still rooted in reality, although, vaguely and distantly. Dennehy’s unresolved reality caters to their advantage. The existence of records, and mentioned, “cultural juxtaposition” neither proves no falsifies the artists’ claims but merely extends us into the realm of imagination, where the viewer, just as much as the artist, is trying to find the missing pieces of the puzzle.

Cardiff and Miller have put together a spectacular dramatization of Dennehy’s life, and it creates an intriguing and absorbing experience, that keeps you coming back to understand and appreciate every facet of R. Dennehy’s world. [pic] [pic] Works Cited 1. Cardiff, Janet and Miller, George Bures. The Secret Hotel. Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2006. 2. Cardiff, Janet and Miller, George Bures. Opera for a Small Room, 2005. Materials: Mixed media with sound, record players, records and synchronized lighting, Duration: 20 min. loop, Dimension: 2,6 x 3 x 4,5m. Photo Credit Photos courtesy of http://www. cardiffmiller. com/artworks/inst/opera. html#

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