Reverence for Sound: Janet Cardiff at PS1

On view at PS1 September 11, 2011 to January 9, 2012
by Jonathan Beer

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff, Installation at MoMA PS1

Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff, Installation at MoMA PS1

As an atheist, my list of religious experiences is rather short, comprised of events that had a profound effect and that I never could’ve anticipated. I now happily add Janet Cardiff’s ‘Forty Part Motet’ to the list.

It was by chance that I saw this work during a recent trip to PS1, MoMA’s contemporary art space. I was there with an artist friend to see a performance related to Anthology, an exhibition of work created by Clifford Owen, PS1’s artist-in-residence this past summer. With some time before the performance we made our way through the museum, moving through the September 11 exhibition currently occupying the entire second floor. Near its end, we found ourselves in a large room lined with windows, barren except for an oval of 40 freestanding speakers with a solitary bench in the center. Three or four other people populated the silence of the room, as we walked with unease between the speakers, unsure what to expect and puzzled by the faint whispers issuing from them.

In an instant the atmosphere of the room changed. Sound poured from the speakers and forty voices began to sing Janet Cardiff’s reworked version of “Spem in Alium Nunquam habui,” a 16th Century Latin choral piece composed by Thomas Tallis. Unknowingly we entered at the perfect time – the early afternoon light streamed in from the windows framing the ring of speakers; they in turn encircled four weight-bearing columns, forming a kind of altar around the solitary bench in the room. Within moments this sparse setting assumed the air of a cathedral. Positioned within the oval of speakers we were surrounded by voices; suddenly part of a fluid, undulating and surprisingly physical space of sound and emotion. As different parts of the chorus chimed in the sound jumped back and forth between speakers, building in intensity as it echoed around the room. The voices carried us as if on a wave coming into the shore, emotion building like the crest of a wave, and as all the voices come together you are slammed onto the shore, emotionally overwhelmed, powerless to resist being pulled back into the ocean of sound.
Each person in the room was transfixed with a strange kind of reverence — I stood enraptured, mouth agape as I glanced around to see the reactions of others. One woman sat down heavily on the bench, overcome, others walked among the speakers in a contemplative trance.
Each note reaffirmed the power and beauty of the 14 minute long piece. Upon its conclusion, we filed out slack-jawed and a little weightless, still reeling from the otherworldliness we’d unexpectedly encountered.
As we continued past the other pieces in the September 11 exhibition I began to understand the Forty Part Motet among the other work. Originally created in 2001 before the attacks, it has been installed in numerous other venues and it is now part of the permanent collection at National Gallery of Canada. Its strength is in its flexibility, changing meaning depending on its context. In its current iteration it provides a transcendent refuge amongst works that offer a more direct connection to the painful realities surrounding 9/11.

It is no secret that even a decade later September 11th remains an extremely sensitive subject. This poses a challenge to any curator that endeavors to put together highly visible exhibition together based on the topic. Almost two-thirds of the artwork chosen by curator Peter Eleey was created before the attacks — a bold move that deftly avoids curatorial narrowness by excluding work directly addressing 9/11. He produces instead a sophisticated and thought provoking show incorporating work by 41 artists such as Christo, Barbara Kruger, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. At first choosing such diverse work might seem questionable, but in fact it all speaks to larger ideas of chaos, tragedy and loss. Eleey places 9/11 in a larger context that encourages growth beyond the paralyzing events of that September morning. Perhaps this show can allow 9/11 pass gracefully into history, acknowledging that it will never be forgotten while allowing us to focus on the ways we remember it.

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