A couple of weeks ago, our PhD group, led by Professor Mary Modeen was treated to a presentation by the New York-based artist Margaret Cogswell talking about her life-long body of work, River Fugues. 

 I was curious as to what a River Fugue might be, only knowing about J S Bach’s Preludes and Fugues from my musical past and knowing from A’ level music that a fugue is a musical piece featuring two or more contrapuntal strands, based on a musical theme, played simultaneously and yet creating a harmonious whole.  As a pianist I remember all too clearly how difficult it was to play and maintain these different musical voices in a meaningful way.

Cogswell uses the musical structure of the fugue to reflect the different components of her work and uses the flexible conceptual framework as a means of presenting a number of video tracks as musical scores, as if they were different musical instruments.  Her work, in addition to the video work, also includes drawings and various multi-media installations.  Glenn Gould’s documentary film and narrative fugue The Idea of the North and Anne Carson’s The Anthropology of Water are key inspirations in her work with both artists stretching the boundaries between music and language.

The River Fugues series (Cogswell 2003 onwards) began with Cuyahoga Fugues (2003) (https://margaretcogswell.net/cuyahoga-fugues) when Cogswell explored the river and steel mills in Cleveland, Ohio incorporating generations of stories and the hopes and dreams generated by the Cuyahoga River.  The resulting work involves the bringing together of people’s voices, sounds of settlements and of the steel mills along the river and was exhibited alongside video stills in a small-scale industrial site.

Hudson Weather Fugues followed in 2005, with Hudson River Fugues in 2009-10 (https://margaretcogswell.net/hudson-river-fugues).  Hudson Weather Fugues was held at the Glyndor Gallery, at Wave Hill, Bronx, New York and in an installation taking best advantage of the architecture of the building, Cogswell used the windows overlooking the Hudson River to display video projections over two panes of glass, with custom-made shutters housing speakers that provided narratives to the video work.  Benches provided within each window space lured the viewer to linger and look out of the window onto the river and eavesdrop on today’s stories and gain a glimpse of current weather conditions.

I was particularly struck by the Zhujiajiao River Poems (2014) (https://margaretcogswell.net/zhujiajiao-river-poems) and the beautiful depiction of the river and the many daily rituals played out on the river – such as the rowing of boats and the harvesting of snails with long bamboo poles.  Cogswell was striving to capture the essence of the place through the eyes of a newcomer, through frequent observation from her studio overlooking the river and long walks along its banks.  The resulting drawings and videos are beautifully presented with one using an oval frame to focus in on the essence of the image.

And finally, from the selection of fugues that Cogswell presented to us, Moving the Waters: Croton Fugues (2017) (https://margaretcogswell.net/croton-fugues).  Cogswell’s in-depth research continues in relation to the first reservoir in New York City, originally on the site of the current New York City Public Library and across the street from the Mid-Manhattan Library where Cogswell exhibited her work.    Her exhibition coincided with the 2017 centennial celebration of New York’s aqueduct system.  Through her installation, Cogswell hoped to draw in her viewers through the use of photographs and video stills, layered with archival images on large panels hanging in windows.  This presentation was inspired by India’s Deccan Court paintings of the 16th and 17th century by breaking down the panels into sections of narrative, abstraction and repetitive patterns.  Again, like Zhujiajiao River Poems, she uses oval and circular images.


I was fascinated by Margaret Cogswell’s original inspiration, her conception of the River Fugues project, her description of what she does, the meticulous research she undertakes and the depth of consideration in terms of the installation and how best to use the space she has.  It is a thought-provoking example of a long-term project that is in fact a life’s work.  It is also interesting to see how different approaches to the same theme evolve over time and how different rivers and communities evoke a different response in the artist and an entirely novel piece of work.  She seeks to find the essence in the rivers, their history, their communities and people and to find a sympathetic and informed way of presenting her images, videos and drawings.



Cogswell, M. (2003 onwards). “River Fugues.” Retrieved 14/2/21, from https://margaretcogswell.net/river-fugues.


Alison Price

Alison Price

My name is Alison Price and for the past ten years I have travelled the world photographing wildlife, including Alaska, Antarctica, Borneo, Botswana, the Canadian Arctic, Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
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