The Murder of Crows (2008), a 30-minute installation by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, successfully filled the Park Avenue Armory's 55,000-square-foot drill hall with sound alone. While past artists' projects there have employed giant mounds of material or hulking machinery, Cardiff and Miller boldly left much of the space empty and in darkness. Commissioned by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna, and employing music by composers including Freida Abtan, Tilman Ritter and Titus Maderlechner, as well as by Miller, the piece delivered a sensual experience with relatively limited material means.
Atop a simple folding table at the hall's center rested an old-fashioned horn speaker directed toward rows of wooden chairs for visitors. Throughout the hall, 98 small loudspeakers stood on stands or chairs, or hung from the ceiling; all the speaker cables stretched upward, vanishing into the darkness.
Cardiff's voice came from the speaker horn, softly recounting three horrific dreams, marked by the typical abrupt shifts and inexplicable transformations. In the first of the recordings the artist made upon awakening, she finds herself in a blood-drenched factory where workers feed cats or babies into noisy machines. Accompanying Cardiff's voice is a gradually swelling beeping and mechanical hum, followed by spurting liquid and thudding footsteps. Machine noises crescendo, followed by the sounds of chanting men.
In the second dream, soldiers in a jungle hold a group of youths captive. After one hurts his foot in an attempted escape, a commander threatens to cut off the leg, and the prisoner begs for help while being dragged off. "We don't really cut if off," the commander assures Cardiff. Distorted string instruments join in, followed by a marching beat and a male chorus singing forcefully in Russian. Marching boots are heard as the music climaxes and suddenly ends. Crows caw overhead.
Cardiff finds herself, in the third dream, at a beachside shack, where, in a bed, she finds an amputated leg. "I can't scream and I can't move," Cardiff says. "I know something terrible is going to happen." The sound of crashing waves builds to a thunderous volume, then gives way to the sound of crows and flapping wings.
The piece ends with a lullaby that veers into doggerel: "Crows did fly / through the sky / I hear their cries / strange lullaby," the lyrics open. They end, "close your eyes and try to sleep." It was the only sour note in an otherwise flawless piece.
Murder draws inspiration from Goya's iconic etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (1799), according to an accompanying brochure that also includes a text by curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev. She describes the piece as social commentary that mourns a promised post-Cold War utopia in an era of ethnic cleansing and war on terrorism. While that strikes me as a stretch, The Murder of Crows effectively presents one dreamer's unconscious, and shows it to be perhaps just as troubled as the outside world.
Photo: View of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Murder of Crows, 2008, 30 minutes; at the Park Avenue Armory.