Has someone ever asked you, “Who is your favorite artist?” or “What is your favorite work of art?” I’ve always considered those questions as silly as asking to choose your favorite child.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I first heard that Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet was coming to the High Museum and my gut response was, “Oh, I love that piece so much. It may be one of my all-time favorite works of art!”
This piece is truly extraordinary. It is sublime. It is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, and I am thrilled that it will be at the High Museum for two months, beginning October 11.
Here’s the odd part. You would think that a visual arts critic would be drawn to something she can see. This work is a sound installation: it is about the experience of hearing, and what you envision in your mind.
Of course, there are visual components. Forty high-fidelity speakers on tall stands arranged in a wide circle face the center of the room. But it is what comes out of them that is important. Each speaker contains the voice of a vocalist in the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, whom Cardiff and sound engineer George Bures Miller, her husband, recorded on separate microphones as the vocalists sang 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis’ choral work “Spem in Alium.”
Visitors standing in the middle of the room hear the voices blend in the most beautiful fashion, the polyphonic Latin chants evolving from smaller arrangements of sopranos, altos, tenors and bassists into a brilliantly unified finale.
The experience changes dramatically, however, as you amble in front of the speakers. Positioned at ear height, they quickly become surrogates for the choristers they represent. “I want the audience to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers,” writes Cardiff on her website.
As your focus shifts from the group to the individual, you begin to hear when a particular voice joins the others and when it is at rest. You experience the many distinct and individual voices required to make a harmonious whole.
Cardiff brilliantly accentuates this by including the moments before the performance as the group prepares to sing. From different speakers come the sounds of a cough, a man clearing his throat, a woman trying out a few notes, the shuffling of feet.
Then there is a pivotal moment, when the individuals coalesce, joining their voices to a singular purpose. The transformation from the ordinary to something so sacred and beautiful is breath-taking.
Audience participation has always been central to Cardiff’s work. “I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space,” she writes.
The installation design allows viewers to stand (or sit) in the middle and move around, empowering them to direct their own experience.
Interestingly, this is one of the few works in which that is the case. The Canadian artist is probably best known for her site-specific walks, created in collaboration with Miller. Using technological aids such as an iPod with headphones or a camcorder, participants accompany the narrator on a specific path through places such as Munster, Germany; the Whitechapel area of London; the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh and, one of my all-time favorites, New York’s Central Park.
Because The Forty Part Motet is not tied to a specific place, it travels often to festivals and museums. In each of the 20 times it’s been exhibited, its new environment adds another dimension to the experience. For example, when the National Gallery of Canada presented the work in the Rideau Chapel, the speakers lined the nave of the church and the sound rose to the cathedral’s ceiling. Inhotim, a private art foundation in Brazil, set the work in a window-lined gallery surrounded by the lush foliage of a botanical preserve. The Cleveland Museum of Art presented it in its Renaissance painting galleries.
Wieland Family curator Michael Rooks, who is bringing the work to Atlanta, first experienced the piece at the 2001 Venice Biennale. “As you remember, 9/11 happened in September and the world changed,” he recalls. “Perhaps it was the only time that we all had a shared context, a shared experience through which this piece spoke to us.
“It was so powerful. The Motet is about faith and hope. The title roughly translates to ‘In none other do I place my hope than Christ.’ So it’s like a prayer, an incantation of one’s faith. The piece is always unexpected,” Rooks says, “even if it is in one of these cathedral-like spaces where the subject matches one’s expectations of a religious kind of experience. But if you experience it in MOMA or P.S.1 or in another space that seems more modern and minimal and cold architecturally, then the warmth of the piece, the beauty of it, the overwhelming humanity of it is really surprising. And that is how I’ve always experienced it.”
In Atlanta, the work will occupy the Skyway’s entrance gallery in the Wieland Pavilion. “It will be in a very modern, sky-lit space, which is kind of appropriate because you have this beautiful heavenly light,” Rooks explains. “We’ve learned from having the Nadine Robinson there that acoustically the space is very pleasant. There are no reverberations, I think because of the scoops in the skylights.”
The installation coincides with the presentation of Make A Joyful Noise: Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral, which will include three marble panels from Renaissance artist Luca della Robbia’s famed and beautiful organ loft in Florence, Italy, as well as hand-decorated choir books and a lectern designed to display them.
But Rooks notes that while sympathetic, the two exhibitions are quite distinct. “The Janet Cardiff piece is not a musical experience; it is a sound installation. Janet is interested in rearticulating architecture in our environment through sound.”
The Forty Part Motet makes me think differently about space and about how I traverse through the world. Rather than speak at me, it invites me in to explore something from a different vantage point. I have had the privilege of experiencing it three times, and each has been transformative: extremely calming yet invigorating. I suppose this is why I consider it one of my favorite works of art.