Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: The Infinity Machine

Jan 31, 2015 – Feb 28, 2016
Byzantine Fresco Chapel

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are the first artists to be commissioned by the Menil Collection to create an installation in the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. Opened in 1997, the Byzantine Fresco Chapel was designed by architect Francois de Menil to house a group of 13th-century Greek Orthodox frescoes that the Menil, acting on behalf of the Church of Cyprus, rescued from looters, restored, and displayed in a consecrated space. Setting a high mark in the field of cultural heritage and stewardship, the loan agreement concluded in 2012, when the Menil returned the restored frescoes to Cyprus.

The Infinity Machine inaugurates an experimental series of year-long, site-specific installations giving new life to the chapel, which joins the Cy Twombly Gallery and the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall as a freestanding building devoted to modern and contemporary art on the Menil’s 30-acre campus. “One of our fundamental goals,” said Menil Director Josef Helfenstein, “is to enable people to experience the subtle and yet powerful resonance inherent in art from many periods and traditions, from Greek antiquities and African masks to modern paintings and sculptures. We feel it is profoundly meaningful to repurpose our Byzantine Fresco Chapel as a space for long-term, contemporary installations that offer such experiences, and are proud to begin with this remarkable new work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.”

Cardiff and Miller’s first mobile fills the now-deconsecrated space with a sonic and visual experience inspired by ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras’s concept of “the music of the spheres.” Aspects of the theory that the movement of celestial bodies creates audio harmonies have been corroborated by NASA’s Voyager I and II spacecraft. Visitors hear an audio collage made up of the probes’ recordings of the interactions of the solar wind with the magnetic fields of planet and moons in our solar system. Though inaudible in space, the resulting vibrations fall within the range of frequencies audible to the human ear, and they can be played back as sound on Earth. This soundtrack accompanies a rotating arrangement of 150 antique mirrors with what the artists call an infinity machine—two mirrors facing each other to create a theoretically endless series of reflections—buried in the center.

Artistic collaborators since the 1980s, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are a married couple based in Grindrod, British Colombia, Canada. They are best known for their encompassing, often interactive site-specific works incorporating sound, video, and sculptural elements. These pieces have included a series of walks in which participants listen to recordings on headphones and watch portable video screens while being guided through places such as museums and train stations, creating a sometimes uncanny melding of real and recorded experiences. Recent major installations by Cardiff-Miller have included the outdoor piece Forest (for a thousand years) at documenta XII in Kassel, Germany (2012); The Murder of Crows at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City (2012); and The Forty Part Motet installed in 2013 in a 12th-century Spanish chapel at the Cloisters in New York, the first work of contemporary art ever to be shown at this branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art specializing in medieval art.

This project is curated by Toby Kamps, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, and is generously supported by the City of Houston.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, The Infinity Machine, 2015.