by Ann C. Collins
October 19, 2018
As the autumn season advances further into colder months and the days grow shorter, Degree Critical looks back to a piece of writing from its 2017 print edition about warmth and compassion, and what it means to be home. “On the Road: Cardiff and Miller’s The Marionette Maker” by alumna Ann Collins (Class of 2018) considers the immersive 2014 installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The Marionette Maker (2014) consists of a camping trailer containing marionettes and casts of various sizes, and also dreams—as Collins quotes Gaston Bachelard, “The house shelters daydreaming.” Collins delicately entwines the spirit of a traveler on the road with the longing for being home as it delves into the meaning of journey, dwelling, and partnership.
— Cigdem Asatekin, Managing Editor
In the darkness, the steady drone of crickets, birdcalls, and the lonesome cries of a cat —or is it a baby?— blend in eerie harmonies. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s installation The Marionette Maker (2014) begins with the experience of being lost, if only for a moment, in a disconcerting gloom from which the only way out is to move forward through the shadows into the beckoning glow of a small camping trailer, its windows and hatches agape. The trailer is a 1970 Serro Scotty HiLander, a modest recreational vehicle in which one or two people might comfortably spend the night. In the uncertainty created by Cardiff and Miller’s soundtrack, it offers a welcoming block of light in which one might seek shelter.
A glimpse through the back window of The Marionette Maker reveals a life-sized cast of a middle-aged woman—the artist, Janet Cardiff— who lies on a bunk bed and appears to be sleeping. She wears a white satin nightgown. Her long hair fans across her pillow. Her eyes are closed and her mouth is relaxed, slightly open. Her skin is splotched by the sun, her face lined by time; a princess who has grown a bit old waiting for the kiss that will interrupt her dreaming. Around her, little puppets, made from the heads and limbs
of old toys stuck into clumps of clay jitter and twirl on strings. In the kitchenette beside her,
an eggbeater clatters with life, and a spoon taps the metal sink. These tokens awaken a forgotten playfulness, an intuitive ability to produce meaning from childlike objects. Souvenirs of imagination, they beg us to reclaim our instinctive ability to put together stories—fairy tales, histories, daydreams—even as we age.
“The house shelters daydreaming,” Bachelard writes, “the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”1 It is a lovely analysis of what a dwelling can be, but it also describes what makes for a good marriage. Cardiff and Miller’s house is a metaphor for a life shared, a practice intertwined. Extending the analogies of the house as a person or the house as a representation of an individual, the house in this installation encapsulates both artists, who are not only collaborators in their art practice, but married to each other as well. Their partnership infuses their work with elements that are intensely private yet universally familiar. Together they create multimedia installations where precisely choreographed events unfold within the confines of architectural structures.
The HiLander is diminutive. It demands of its occupants that they carefully choose what to bring and what to leave behind. In addition to the marionettes, Cardiff and Miller have collected books and magazines, things filled with images and stories, which they pile on surfaces and hang from the ceiling in neatly tied bundles. What is essential to these travelers are the things that serve the creative impulse; everything in the HiLander earns its place because it provokes a narrative.
A twelve-inch marionette of a man positioned at the sleeping woman’s feet strums an electric guitar. Clad in jeans and a black t-shirt, the figure is the image of the artist George Bures Miller. His puppet head wobbles thoughtfully along to his music. His hair is silvered, thinning. Like the sleeping woman, he is growing old. The music he plays fills the space with a sense of loneliness. Maybe all this old junk in the timeworn camper has been abandoned, left behind. Maybe its inhabitants have been, too.
At the dashboard of the trailer, another iteration of Miller, spectacled and hunched, sits at a drafting table, pulling a pencil across a great sheet of paper. Beside him a rocking horse pitches forward and back. A second figure of Cardiff—this one a scaled-down marionette, still dressed in her satin nightgown—raises her arms like a sleepwalker and sways to the doleful music. Motors embedded in the ceiling are plainly visible, and the strings that attach them to the puppets are readily noticed. It’s all quite simple—this thing makes that thing move—but that movement animates the marionettes, makes them seem as alive as the viewer who gazes at them.
The walls of the trailer are papered with postcards and prints of sailing ships and cowboys, idyllic images connected to the concept of a journey, a word often used to describe the arrangement of events in a narrative structure (as in a hero’s journey), but more recently used (perhaps ad nauseum) to describe the trajectory of a life. The Marionette Maker takes a house and puts it on wheels, a magical idea that also imbues the house with its own evidence of time, best measured by change seen in both an object and the space that surrounds it; measured by the movement of the sun across the sky, the journey of the constellations, the migration of birds.
Jack Kerouac, in his 1957 travel memoir On the Road, writes about waking up in an unfamiliar place, and how that strange setting gave him the objectivity to understand time:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was away from home, haunted and tired with travel… and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future…2
Kerouac, alone in the middle of a hitchhiking adventure across the United States, confronts the emptiness of existence, an overwhelming void that can only be combatted through a forward propulsion through space. He describes a moment in which he is profoundly aware of his mortality and the futility of life. Separated from any sense of a house, he loses sight of his identity, becomes a stranger even to himself. Such moments of near-enlightenment were one of the promises of wandering the open road, and Kerouac’s book became a guide for those who sought them.
The HiLander and vacation vehicles like it became popular with tin-can travelers, folk who wandered along North American roads in the decades that followed the Second World War, seeking a return to nature and a freedom from the boxed-in life into which the newly built suburban planning of North America had squeezed them. Taking to the open road, even for a mere weekend getaway, resuscitated the long-faded pioneer legends of brave men and women who clawed their way across the plains and mountains of the continent stopping only once they found the Pacific Coast, the end of the land. Advertisements for recreational vehicles promised “more kinds of homes than your average subdivision,” while keeping, “the great outdoors within your budget,” language which promises to deliver a world beyond the domestic restrictions of suburban life, something in the distance for which we all long.
“It is striking how much the longing for distance is linked with ‘the mysterious inward journey,’” writes philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow, “how the return home is the final aim of longing. Homesickness and longing for distance are so close to each other that one must ask oneself if the two things are not basically the same.”3 Cardiff and Miller’s use of the HiLander amalgamates the house with travel in a way that seems to be at odds with older concepts of a house per se: A house is thought of as a fixed location, the unmovable center of the world. A house is the point from which a traveler departs, and the place of all returns.4 But as our understanding of the universe and our place in it has deepened and changed, that concept has shifted. Cardiff and Miller’s house on wheels exists in a world in which there is no longer a central start or end point.
John Berger reminds us that, “originally the home meant the center of the world—not in a geographical, but in an ontological sense.”5 Nomads and other traditional people whose travels were guided by the migration of herds or the change in seasons carried tents and other portable dwellings with them. In today’s world, the nomad is joined by the emigrant and the refugee, people for whom the center has been destroyed, changed from a dream to a nightmare. Constant travelers, they find the core of their existence not in immovable dwellings, but in their memories. The house, for the itinerant, exists in the past, but also, it is hoped, just as certainly in the future. The house for travelers is therefore always haunted, for those who dwell in it do not exist in a present tense. Such is the case in the house of Cardiff and Miller, where dreamers lie undisturbed by versions of themselves past and future, who haunt their shared space.
The highest window of the HiLander, a hatch that opens to a top bunk, is not transparent, but has been papered with a sheet of black foil onto which a field of tiny pinpricks shines. Stars. “This is where stories began,” Berger writes, “which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith.”6 Beneath the blanket of firmament, the earth is the center, the house all around, the room in which we sleep, the place where we lie dreaming.
1 Bachelard, 6.
2 Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: The Viking Press, 1957; New York: Penguin Books 1999) p. 14.
3 O. F. Bollnow, Human Space, trans. Christine Shuttleworth, ed. Joseph Kohlmaier, (London: Hyphen Press, 2011) p. 80.
4 Ibid., 80.
5 John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984; First Vintage International Edition, 1991), p. 54.
6 Ibid., 8.