There is a scene in Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum (from the second half of the book, which didn’t make it into the Schlöndorf film), in which we find a strange gathering, a sort of pseudo-cathartic nightclub in immediate post-World War II Germany: a group of Germans sit together in a room, peeling onions in order to cry. These onion-induced tears are, of course not quite the same as truly emotional ones, but at bare minimum the ejection of saline through the tear ducts offers the form of the process of grief.
The Janet Cardiff/George Bures Miller installation The Murder of Crows, recently on view at the Park Avenue Armory, prompted in us a remembrance of that revealing bit of literature. Entering the dark, cavernous space, one finds a cluster of people seated on wooden folding chairs, raptly staring at an old fashioned gramophone bell on a table. Arranged (mostly on other folding chairs) at various distances are a number of small, black speakers, which radiate out into the darkened corners of the room, each connected by a wire umbilical to the rafters. The central circle is illuminated by several clusters of harsh theatrical lights, creating a stark atmosphere in which this random, disconnected ‘family’ of upscale art lovers might gather ‘round the old wireless, in a postmodernly updated version of raptly following the narrative of an old serial.
Inspired in part by Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, Reason calls but Emotion answers. Reflections on the Industrial Revolution, also borne of that era, unspool through a mediated version of Cardiff’s narrated Unconscious (her dreams), revealing ley lines connecting that key event to the more disturbing elements of the various 20th century horrors. At the remove of the 21st century’s technologized methods of framing, here via a 98-channel audio work that sculpts the ‘viewer’s’ (for lack of a better term) consciousness.
We submit to these deeply intelligent machinations, longing for some sort of release from the entrapment of the four corners of our own skulls. Our age is defined by its hunger to connect – a process that oddly enough, seems to take place only through a variety of technical (social) media. What is this one listening to on Spotify? What is my husband feeling, as reflected in his status updates on Facebook? So much chatter pointing to the need to de-cleave the separation of subject and object. We only miss the experience of the Ding-an-sich when we have first irrevocably distanced ourselves from it. Desire continues to drive us along in our splintered form.
A tentative proximity was fashioned in the 1970s; falling out of fashion for a time, it has now returned in the form of an anti-light show, a visibly wired radio show that rehearses someone else’s memories of trauma and loss. Have you ever had a dream and you weren’t in it? In/Out, We/They, Alive/Dead. We reach vainly for the distant shore, beyond the limits of the bourgeois emotional palette.
(c) Mère Ubu/Beth E. Wilson August 2012
N.B. Video available at bottom is from a different installation of the work, at the Hamburger Bahnhof-Museum für Gegenwart in Berlin, Germany in the spring of 2009.