As the largest installation to date by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “The Murder of Crows” (2008) makes its North American premiere as one of the inaugural exhibitions for the newly redesigned Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton.
Inspired by Francisco de Goya’s “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Plate 43” of the Caprices (Los Caprichos) series, “The Murder of Crows” made its international debut during the 2008 Sydney Biennial, and its European premiere in Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof in 2009. Running 30 minutes, the elaborate sonic installation features 98 black speakers standing individually amidst lone stands and chairs, while a single speaker rests on a table, occasionally emitting Cardiff’s ambisonic narration of dreams and visions.
Image credit: Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Murder of Crows. Installation view: Nationalgalerie, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2009.
PHOTO: Roman Marz. Coutesy the Artists, Galerie Barbara Weiss, Berlin; Luhring Augustine, New York.
Goya’s drawing depicts a man huddled at a desk with his head in his arms. Behind him, wild-eyed bats, owls, cats, and other nocturnal creatures swoop in, as if they’re about to pounce on him, an allegorical critique of the tyranny of the 18th century Spanish rulers. Cardiff and Miller have structured their installation with the same movement and visual composition found in the Goya piece. Sound shifts as a visitor walks through the room, giving a sense of the movement of the representational creatures.
Known for their complex sound installations, Cardiff and Miller’s work has long addressed the spatial and sculptural effects of sound on the body, beginning with Cardiff’s solo work “Forty Part Motet” (2001), which uses Thomas Tallis’ choral work “Spem in Alium” which surrounds visitors with sound, as if they’re in the choir. Their collaborative pieces include “The Paradise Institute”, which represented Canada at the 2001 Venice Biennale, a work that eerily misdirects the senses to recreate the experience of seeing a movie in a theatre. Though they currently split their time between Berlin and the north Okanagan region of B.C., both artists have close ties to Alberta — Miller is originally from Vegreville, and for many years Cardiff based her practice out of the University of Lethbridge.
“Janet and George no longer work independently of each other,” says Catherine Crowston, the AGA’s deputy director and chief curator. “They have had single careers, collaborating every now and then, but in the last three years they have always worked collaboratively, and with that shift the work has grown. It has become larger and more immersive. Janet has been primarily audio, and George has been more sculptural, but together they have expanded on the physicality of George’s work and the narrative of Janet’s work. The partnership has resulted in a different scope and scale. Simultaneously they have been addressing and grappling with content that is darker than what people may be used to.”
The artists’ ambisonic sound field system can generate multiple unique spatial soundscapes, layers of sound generated by replay techniques and a trademark stereophonic recording that seems to reverberate within the inner ear. Blending compositions by Freida Abtan, Tilman Ritter and Titus Maderlechner, “The Murder of Crows” has been likened to a play that physically envelops audiences into a moving structure of disorienting sound. This work advances beyond a sound-based installation, dramatizing acoustic material into a fully formed psychological melodrama.
Accompanying “The Murder of Crows,” Cardiff and Miller will debut “Storm Room,” commissioned for the AGA’s reopening. Staged in a theatre set of a Japanese sitting room, the work’s soundscape creates a thunderstorm that envelopes the room. The 10-minute sound loop, complete with lightning flashes and rain on the windows, continues the artists’ exploration of the effect of false realities on the human mind and body.
*First published in Galleries West, Spring 2010.