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The congregating of crows to mourn is part of the inspiration beind the flock of black box speakers in “The Murder of Crows,” a disorienting sound installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller in the Park Avenue Armory. The image of crows gathering to pay respects to their dead in a similar solemnity to people is largely driven by anecdotes, but I remember once walking through a parking lot in Oklahoma and coming across a circle of crows standing completely silent, the beady eyes in their tilting heads ignoring my approach. As I got closer, I saw that in the center of the circle was the prone body of a single black bird, its feet curled in the unmistakable resignation of death.
It was an incredibly eerie sight, and as I was reading about Cardiff and Miller‘s influences in the installation’s accompanying book, I was drawn back to it. The flutter of wings that gathers in the crescendo of their “Murder of Crows,” titled after the ominous name for a group of the birds, holds the same foreboding that I felt in that moment, with feelings of loss and fear in the soundscape. Or, to quote Cardiff’s monologue, which mutters through the installation: “I know something terrible is going to happen.”
“The Murder of Crows” is the biggest installation yet for the Canadian artists, who are widely recognized for their dreamy, sound-based art experiences, such as the “Words Drawn in Water“ alternate reality audiowalk for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the multimedia “Paradise Institute” at the 49th Venice Biennale that created the illusion of watching a film with a phantom audience in an old theatre. Another of their works is currently up through September 4 at MoMA PS1: the incredibly affecting “Forty Part Motet,“ which has 40 individual voices separated through 40 speakers in a reworking of Thomas Tallis’ 1575 “Spem in Alium.” It is much more meditative than “Murder of Crows” to walk the circle of choir voices in “Forty Part Motet” or stand in the center to be surrounded by the diverse composition, and it is also free of the linear narrative that drives the Armory installation. Additionally, there are more than twice as many speakers in “The Murder of Crows,” with 98 clustered in the middle of the Armory, with a few lurking at its edges, the primary focus being on the gramophone-like speaker on a central table.
Through it Cardiff’s voice gasps awake to tell three dreams to listeners who sit across from her voice in the empty chairs facing those occupied with speakers. Listeners can also sprawl on the floor or wander the periphery of the space, but it becomes difficult to hear her voice further from the center, and the odd stories of factories that gobble babies, of miserable slaves pulled through a jungle, and a beach littered with crows and a creepy house that make the engulfing noises of machines, singing, waves and wind more meaningful. The piece was first exhibited at the 2008 Sydney Biennale, where it was commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary and installed in an old wharf warehouse, and has its US premiere here in the massive Park Avenue Armory, where despite its size it barely fills the darkness of the 55,000 square foot space. (It is quite a contrast in both tone and visual to the previous art installation, Tom Sachs’ Space Program: Mars, which gleefully took over each corner with some sort of retrofuture space contraption.)
Along with the death gatherings of the crows, Cardiff and Miller were inspired by Francisco Goya’s Los Caprichos series of 80 prints from 1797 and 1798 condemning the follies of society with its wars and ignorance. Especially influential was No. 43, “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters,” where a man sleeping at a table is seemingly terrorized by a mob of owls and bats, and in “Murder of Crows” the dreams of Cardiff’s sleep are vague mournings for something that has been lost. The most obvious repeating symbol is that of is a missing leg, and if you didn’t pick up on it from the dreams, there is even a choir sequence that chants: “Where is my leg? … She’s lost her leg, where has it gone?”
The whole experience is roughly 30 minutes long, pulling listeners into a convincing theeatre of sound that had me inadvertantly looking up at the sensations of wings or storms, even though there was nothing there but speakers hanging in the dark. While sound is obviously the substance of the installation, the visual of the circles of chairs and speakers waiting in the gaping space is powerful. Each listen through “Murder of Crows” can be slightly different based on where you choose to sit or stand, and the experience at the crowded opening was even more uncanny, where with the large group hiding many of the floor speakers made it sound like some of the singing voices could be coming from fellow audience members.
Dreams are always most powerful when they’re being experienced in the entrapment of sleep, and so “Murder of Crows” is the strongest when you are fully consumed in its world, its haunting power fading as soon as the gentle ending lullaby sung by Cardiff pulls you away from the disturbing dreams. However, while you are in it, “Murder of Crows” is really an entrancing experience, and like waking too soon from sleep it is easy to let yourself fade into another cycle as it restarts every 30 minutes during its Armory run. And like coming across a strange congregation of crows, there will be something of its disjointed images of horror that will flutter after you from the Park Avenue Armory.
The Murder of Crows is at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Manhattan) through September 9.