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