The AGA Exhibits: Images In Sight And Sound

The AGA actually is a much smaller building than I expected.  But what’s appealing is the ubiquitous windows and glass allowing natural light to pour in, visually expanding the interior space.  The windows also make the surrounding downtown buildings visible from within, enhancing the sense of connection with the adjacent urban environs.  The exhibits are distributed among three floors of galleries.

Figures in Motion showcases 40 of Edgar Degas’ (1834-1917) bronze sculptures of dancers, bathers, and horses.  Juxtaposed in the exhibits are paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints of early photographs showing these figures in action.  The nuance of a single movement, as simple as the drying motion of bathers, can turn into a subject of grace and beauty under the sensitive eyes and expressive hands of the artist.

In contrast, Francisco Goya’s (1746-1828) etching prints suites Los Caprichos (1799) and The Disasters of War (1810-1820) are the realistic depiction of the ugliness and foibles of humanity.  A sharp social critic, his art mightier than the sword, Goya’s works expose unreservedly the horror of war and his critique of his time.

Up to the second floor I came face to face with the archetypal portraits by the renowned Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) in the exhibit Karsh: Image Maker.  We all must have seen some of his black and white portraits of famous people, somewhere.  The most well-known probably is Winston Churchill from whose mouth Karsh reportedly pulled out a cigar as he did his work.  Other famous portraits include that of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Ernest Hemingway, Princess Elizabeth, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Alfred Hitchcock, Helen Keller, Grey Owl and numerous remarkable history makers.  I was totally absorbed as I walked by these meditative portraits of iconic personalities.

It seemed that the exhibits grew more interesting with every flight of stairs I stepped up.  The third floor offered an experience totally new to me.  As far as I can recall, this is the first sound installation mixed media art that I’ve encountered.  In a large, rectangular room occupying the whole floor, The Murder of Crows is installed.  Sound sculptors Janet Cardiff and George Miller have shown this work, their largest sound installation, in Australia, Germany and Brazil.  This is their North American premiere.

98 speakers are placed strategically and aesthetically in a large room, surrounding a table in the middle.  On the table is a megaphone.  Audience seats are grouped in the space encircled by the speakers.  The whole setting visually is a minimalist display.  The photo below is this installation in Berlin.  Even without the sound, the arrangement is an artistic presentation in itself.

But what we had at the AGA was a windowless room with dim lighting.  The added effects were even more haunting and claustrophobic.

The 30 minutes sound presentation is a fusion of narrations, voices, footsteps, birds and bats, choral and orchestral music.  It evokes sequences of dreamscapes, and in part is an audio rendition of Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters in the Los Caprichos series (See image above).  The etching shows the artist himself asleep at his desk, with owls and bats hovering over him. The title divulges layers of meaning, prompting speculations of Goya’s actual thoughts.  The sleep of reason unleashes powerful imagination, even nightmares. Or, the erosion of reason led humanity into chaos and irrationality…

The phrase ‘the murder of crows’ refers to the collective gathering of the ominous birds, re-created here by the groupings of the 98 black speakers, some mounted on stands, some placed on chairs.  The very title and the effects made me feel like I was in the middle of the Hitchcock movie The Birds.  The sound was so riveting that I was glued to my seat in suspense… and the music from the massive choir and orchestra was both amazing and disturbing.  Click here to watch a 5-minute video clip of the sound installation. Click here to read an interview with Cardiff and Miller.

The AGA is not a big structure, but what is offered inside spans the artistic expressions separated by a chasm of time, form, and style.  From Goya’s disturbing etchings to the graceful renditions of Degas’ dancers, to the photographic images of iconic personalities captured by Karsh, and to end with the haunting sound installation The Murder of Crows, the exhibits were rains of pebbles into this quiet pond of thoughts… something I had not anticipated at the start of the trip.

Photography was not allowed in the galleries, so I cannot post any authentic visual experience here.  The above images are from the following sources:

Degas’ bronze sculpture Little Dancer and Karsh’s portrait of Albert Einstein from AGA website

Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from Wikipedia Commons

The Murder of Crows sound installation from Cardiff and Miller’s website


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

6 thoughts on “The AGA Exhibits: Images In Sight And Sound”

  1. What a marvelous variety! The portraits sound magnificient. Thanks for sharing about this!

    It really was diverse in form and stylistic expressions… gratifying indeed.



  2. It would be a tremendous experience to see and hear any of these exhibits, let alone all of them. I wonder if you did it one visit?

    Actually the exhibits were not very large in quantity… I can relate them to a cineplex, where you have several movies shown at the same time in small theatres. Yes, I did it all in a few hours. It really depends on how detailed you’d like to get.



  3. I can’t help myself…

    “What do you call a group of crows gathered for discussion?” A caw-cus 😉

    I would have enjoyed the Degas. I’m not certain about The Murder of Crows. But I would have participated, of course.

    What I have found delightful is my exploration of your link to Karsh and his work. I’ve seen one or two or the images, but I know nothing about him.

    I found the portraits on the site absolutely compelling. They’re so alive – filled with humor, self-awareness, grace. They make all of the people seem just that – people. They feel approachable. And yet, every one is different, as portraits should be. I’m just amazed.

    Did you read the paragraph with Dr. Thomas Cullen’s portrait? In the midst of our current health care debate, the story is relevant. Even better is the detail that the husband of the woman who required surgery left a bag of hickory nuts on the good doctor’s stoop in payment. When I had my hysterectomy, my surgeon also was a customer, and we did a little trading of our own – varnishwork for scalpelwork! (Well, laser work, actually, but you get the point.)

    I really enjoyed this entry. And I’ve decided the building probably works quite well. I like your Cineplex metaphor.


    1. Linda,

      What’s Ripple Effects’ comment section for if not to unleash readers’ imagination and creativity. And this is a good one: ‘cawcus’. As they say, lol.

      You know, I don’t mean to devalue the architecture, but the curves and fancy design is the ‘facade’ really, because the exhibits are all shown in small, conventional galleries. The one where The Murder of Crows is installed is a minimalist, windowless, rectangular room… nothing like the picture I’ve posted here showing the Berlin installation.

      However, you did bring out a point and actually a controversial debate and that is, will distinguished architectural design rob the attention that should have given to the artifacts it houses? In the film “Sketches of Frank Gehry”, Julian Schnabel, artist and filmmaker, had defended Gehry’s architecture with this statement: ‘If it does compete with the art, maybe that art isn’t good enough.’

      If you’re interested, here’s the link:



  4. I am interested, and appreciate the link. It reminded me that I wanted to see that film, too. Instead of a TBR list, I need a TBW – to be watched. I just must organize my life more efficiently!

    The architecture/artifact discussion is interesting. It reminds me of jewelry. The setting should complement the gem, not overwhelm it. Conversely, even the most beautiful setting in the world can’t overcome flawed jewels. It feels like the perfect analogy.

    But you see, Julian Schnabel’s argument is quite audacious really, if it feels like the architecture is overwhelming the art, then maybe the art isn’t good enough to be placed there.

    Nevertheless, let me add just one more idea, elaborate architecture could augment the presentation of the artifacts, raising it to a higher plane for people to appreciate, maybe merely by altering perception. I wouldn’t use the word ‘packaging’… but, let’s just settle with the idea of ‘showcasing’.



  5. Exactly. In the same way, I sometimes tell folks who give me permission to use their photos that I hope my words can “frame” them properly.

    Text and context, eh?

    (Oh, look! I just spoke Canadian!)



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