Arts

This tiny B.C. town is now home to an art gallery unlike anything you've seen before

Art stars Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who repped Canada at the Venice Biennale, turned a furniture store in Enderby, B.C. into the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse.

Art stars Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller turned a furniture store into the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse

Exterior of a building, the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse, at dusk. A large sign shaped like an orange QR code, is in front of the building.
The Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse in Enderby, B.C. Scan the QR code for visitor info! (Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse)

Every summer weekend, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller watch the tourists roll in. The couple, who represented Canada at the 2001 Venice Biennale, have collaborated since the early '80s, and they've made their home in the North Okanagan, a 10-minute drive from Enderby, B.C. 

A tiny city with a population just north of 3,000, Enderby is a typical farming community, Cardiff explains. But come Friday morning, the town fills up. Visitors make their way there from all over, arriving for the weekend farmer's market or, better yet, a lazy float down the Shuswap River. But soon, another tourist attraction could be luring people to the area: the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse (CMAW).  

Launched this past Saturday, CMAW is unlike anything you'll find in a Canadian small town: a cavernous contemporary art gallery housed in a former furniture store. And the project is something of a career-long dream for the art-world stars.

The duo continue to exhibit widely, and a career retrospective is currently appearing at Museum Tinguely in Basel, Switzerland through Sept. 24. But the artists have seldom enjoyed such opportunities close to home. "We always wanted to have a place where we could permanently show our work," says Miller, and CMAW will be just that: a home for their many creations, including multimedia installations that are rarely shown on their native turf. 

Shot from above, a view of a shadowy warehouse filled with a circle of 40 boxy speakers. A lone figure sits on a bench in the centre of the room.
Installation view of Forty Part Motet at the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse. (Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse)

Miller refers to their larger pieces as "problem works," installations that are just so enormous in scale that few venues are equipped to present them. At CMAW, though, that won't be an issue — fingers crossed. The artists, who are funding the entire gallery themselves, now have 19,200 square feet to play with: storage and exhibition space that's spread over two buildings, each one boasting a 19-foot ceiling. 

Cardiff and Miller purchased the site six years ago. "When we saw the building, we just went, 'Wow, this is it,'" says Cardiff, and the duo gave the furniture store's old showrooms a scrappy, DIY makeover, pulling out staircases and mezzanines to create a more open space. Its appearance, she says, remains rough around the edges. The original paint, she explains, is still on the walls.

What's inside?

As for what's on display, CMAW's inaugural exhibition pulls four works from Cardiff and Miller's archives. The most recent work on display is The Poetry Machine. It's an interactive sculpture — an organ, really. Each key plays a different poem from Leonard Cohen's The Book of Longing, read by the artist himself. (It first appeared at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montreal's 2017 exhibition, Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything.) 

This vintage organ lets you play a symphony of Leonard Cohen's poetry

6 years ago
Duration 2:02
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have turned Cohen's words into a playable machine — and they say it's almost like getting a personal message from Leonard.

Also featured: The Forty Part Motet, Cardiff's 2001 sound sculpture that can also be found at the National Gallery of Canada. A collection of 40 individual speakers that have been arranged in a circle, the piece is like crawling inside a choral motet, specifically Spem in Alium, a 16th century composition by Thomas Tallis. 

One exhibited work, The Marionette Maker (2014), has never appeared in Canada before. That installation, which was originally produced for the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, is an eerie fairy-tale scenario involving robotic marionettes and a life-sized "Sleeping Beauty" (modelled after Cardiff) — all housed in a vintage camping trailer.

And then there's The Murder of Crows. In form, it's a 98-channel sound installation, one that's meant to simulate a cinematic dreamscape.

"Ninety-eight speakers takes a huge amount of space, so not many museums around the world can actually show it," says Cardiff. "Now, we can just go in there and sit."

How to visit

But CMAW is as much for the public as it is for the artists themselves. Admission is $10 for adults (kids and students are free), and visitor info, including operating hours, can be found on CMAW's website. According to Cardiff, 300 people attended the gallery's opening weekend, and CMAW will be open to visitors Friday through Sunday until the fall, with plans to reopen in the spring. (The cost of heating two warehouses will likely keep them closed through the winter, they explain.) 

As for future programming, that's all TBD, and Cardiff and Miller say they're still discussing their mission — and whether there is one. "There is no vision," says Miller with a laugh, though Cardiff would put it this way: "We've never been afraid to make mistakes. We jump at things and we just explore."

Why open a gallery in small town B.C.?

A small vintage camping trailer, lit with blue light from within, appears inside a darkened warehouse.
Installation view of The Marionette Maker, a 2014 work by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, at the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse. (Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse)

However the space evolves, both artists hope the gallery will be a welcome contribution to the local arts scene. "We're small, but there's a lot of interesting people living in the area," says Miller, pointing to performing arts groups including the Caravan Farm Theatre in nearby Armstrong and Runaway Moon Theatre, a puppet workshop in Enderby. 

"We see ourselves as just adding to what's already quite a rich cultural scene going on," he says, and the Okanagan region has seen a burst of residents in recent years. The Kelowna area, just 85 kilometres to the south, is the fastest growing place in the country, according to the Regional District of Central Okanagan, and Cardiff says she's met several new transplants to the Enderby area, folks who are "just sick of the big city, and they come out to smaller towns."

"We want to contribute to that sort of allure," she says, and in addition to attracting art lovers, she hopes that CMAW can collaborate with universities in the area, including the University of British Columbia's Okanagan Campus, which offers an MFA program.

The Poetry Machine, an interactive installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. An organ is surrounded by stacks of audio speakers. All rest on a patterned rug in a dark room.
The Poetry Machine, an interactive installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. Each organ key plays a different poem by Leonard Cohen, recited by the artist himself. (Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse)

But even without formal partnerships, CMAW will be a place where folks in the community can learn about art, and Cardiff says she wants to keep a resource library on site. "It's really important for me: education," says Cardiff. She and Miller met while studying at the University of Alberta in the early '80s, but before arriving in Edmonton, they were both small-town kids. Miller hails from Vegreville, Alta.; Cardiff grew up in Brussels, Ont. "A lot of people [in small towns] don't travel outside, or don't have access to alternative art," says Cardiff. 

"We're partially starting this project for the farm kid that I was," she says.

Still, all these years later, the place is something of a dream come true. Being able to revisit moments from their career whenever the whim strikes? That's a great feeling. Before The Murder of Crows was installed at CMAW, it had been years since Cardiff and Miller had experienced it. "I'm biased because I like my own work, I like our work," she says. "But I love just sitting in that piece and listening to it."

Top-down view of a darkened warehouse. Rows of chairs and audio speakers fill the room. A lone figure, their back to the viewer, sits in a chair. A grammophone on a red table appears at centre under a spotlight.
Installation view of The Murder of Crows at the Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse. (Cardiff Miller Art Warehouse)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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