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'Fugue' captures sounds and sights of the Mississippi

Art review: Exhibition takes us to the river
'Fugue' captures sounds and sights of the Mississippi
By Andria Lisle

Friday, September 19, 2008
Walking into the Art Museum of the University of Memphis now is like stepping into the pages of John M. Barry's "Rising Tide," which documents the Army Corps of Engineers' attempts to stem the after-effects of the 1927 flood that devastated this region.
Memphis-born, New York-based artist Margaret Cogswell's current mixed-media installation at AMUM, "Mississippi River Fugues," takes us to the river and drops us right in: Nine copper-and-tin lanterns, each equipped with a Sony DVD player that displays filmed footage of flickering candles, swing from the ceiling at various heights. Sounds emanate from within, mimicking the thud of water sloshing against a canoe hull, the radio transmissions between levee supervisors, and the soft drawls of cotton farmers who depend on the river's alluvium soil for their crops.
In Gallery A, five buoy-inspired steel stands rise toward the 24-foot ceiling, projecting a series of images on the walls. Here, man-made noises again combine with organic sounds to create a soothing mix. Moving images revolve in and out of focus -- close-up shots of a cotton harvest, pictures of cattle in a pasture, crop dusters in flight, and a red clay Delta road zip overhead, appearing as they would on a rifle scope before disappearing and reappearing with alacrity.
It's much more disconcerting to stand amongst the quintet of buoys and a pair of turbines mounted on steel scaffolds, one of which displays a murky film of a naked man running on a treadmill, than it is to observe the river itself from the tranquil heights of the Downtown bluffs, a mere seven miles away. While I've been on the water of the mighty Mississippi, this is the closest I can imagine to being in it.
I have a friend who, last summer, slipped into the Mississippi River somewhere north of Memphis and, after a 30-minute swim, emerged triumphantly on the Arkansas side. I have another friend who, 10 years earlier, innocently waded into the Wolf River Harbor Downtown. While floating on his back at dusk, he disappeared under the muddy water and drowned.
Listening to Cogswell's soundtrack, I think back to the snaps and crackles my swimmer friend reported hearing while underwater, caused by so much silt and debris rushing by.
Taken collectively, the interplay between the audio and visual details of "Mississippi River Fugues" resonates like the text of Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi" fused with one of Margaret Bourke-White's industrial photographs and manifested in nightmarish detail.
Yet, according to text included with the AMUM exhibit, Cogswell was influenced by an 18th- century French drawing of a machine dredger powered by men in squirrel wheel cages. The absurdity of such an image -- and Cogswell's fascination with man's efforts to control nature -- is perfectly rendered by a sculpture of galvanized ductwork fitted at one end with a set of spades and drains. The piece is menacingly massive, until you try to imagine it battling with the never-ending flow of the river and you realize that nature will always win.
The simple, yet breathtakingly sophisticated "Mississippi River Fugues" is Cogswell's fourth site-specific installation to weave together a narrative about post-industrialized river cities using audio and video components, culminating a series of work that has also documented the Cuyahoga, Buffalo and Hudson rivers.
Here in Memphis, it should open up a dialogue about the unpredictability of the river and the placidity with which we regard its mythical presence.
"Mississippi River Fugues," installation by Margaret Cogswell
At the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, 3750 Norriswood, through Nov. 1. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday. Call 678-2224.

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