Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller at the Hamburger Bahnhof
March 14th through May 17th, 2009
You part two layers of thick red curtains to enter the atrium of Hamburger Bahnhof, where chairs, speakers, and a single table with a gramophone perched on it – all arranged in a circle – form The Murder of Crows, the new installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. The 30-minute-long sound piece works as a sort of play without a stage and without actors – a symphony of disembodied voices and motion, a meditation on dread and the tyranny of nightmares. The piece fits in well with the notion of “Romantic Conceptualism,” which has been all the intellectual rage in Europe in recent years, while simultaneously combating the contemporary art world’s resistance to theatricality - a resistance that has become a major convention since the emergence and subsequent pre-dominance of pop, minimalism, performance art, and conceptual practices some four decades ago.
It’s quite unusual for a sound installation to draw massive crowds, but the popularity of Cardiff and Miller’s piece points to its intrinsic beauty and accessibility – two terms that may be taboo in the discourse surrounding contemporary art, but are nonetheless relevant to The Murder of Crows. The instrumental usage of ninety-eight loudspeakers, combined with the fact that the sound is so crisp that you feel as though you are in the midst of a live performance, endows the work with a symphonic strength. Of course, the massive open space helps – we are sitting in the arrivals hall of a former train station. We can hardly imagine the piece working in the comparatively claustrophobic confines of a white cube gallery, where sound art often comes off as a novelty genre.
The Murder of Crows is a fiercely introspective work. Essentially, the piece is about dread. It is textured with a series of descriptions of nightmares, spoken by a female voice (Cardiff herself), interrupted by bursts of frightening and joyful music, and sounds of movement, the ocean, drums, and, yes, crows overhead. It serves as a sort of sonic elucidation of the Goya painting, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799).
The speaker wants, more than anything, a peaceful night of sleep, but is engaged in an existential battle with her own (seemingly) sourceless nightmares. Dreams of severed limbs and foreboding distort her waking reality, the dream narrative that is being recorded. The piece records the process by which one individual confronts her symbolic demons as a means of coping with larger conflicts in the external world. In the end, she is given relief with a lilting lullaby.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s largest sound work to date releases us from the static sociology that so much conceptual work is based on. The Murder of Crows gives us a unique insight into a victimology in which the self is both aggressor and captive. In doing so, it is indicative of a new era that strives to go beyond reason and use the outcome of suffering – jubilation – as a foundation for self-discovery.
Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio.view all articles from this author