JANET CARDIFF: THE FORTY PART MOTET

13 Jun

Fabrica, Brighton, 2nd April-30th May 2011

Fabrica is a gallery/art space in a former church, a perfect setting for Janet Cardiff’s sound installation that resurrects Elizabethan composer Thomas Tallis’ choral work ‘Spem in Alium’ (“Hope in any other”) from 1573. I know a few people have objected that Cardiff hasn’t really done anything much, and that the considerable emotional impact is all down to Tallis and the singers. I can see where these people are coming from, but I think they’re also perhaps a bit too caught up in the romantic idea of an artist as a wild, untrammelled fountain of radical, novel and mad ideas; this isn’t really true unless the artist is literally mad, because artists who try to work this way or buy into that myth too fully just burn out and can’t work for very long if they can work at all.

Or perhaps I should say this is rarely true. Explosions of creativity can happen, and probably all artists live in hope that they will. Everything’s been done anyway, though. The real issue is that an artist can be a re-presenter as well as a innovator or a representer; in other words, with artists of this kind their art is in their research, the things they find and above all in the way they re-establish contact on our behalf with things, concepts and, yes, beauty to which we have somehow lost access through time and attrition, complacence, cultural shifts, or whatever. This resembles the way that I think and work, in case you were in any doubt.

So, yes, the Tallis music beautifully sung in a church is wrenchingly beautiful and uplifting regardless of your religious orientation because Tallis himself was a master of his craft and knew exactly how and when to use the mathematics of music to push buttons we’re mostly unaware that we even have. But Cardiff has brought it back to us, most especially to the great number of people who rarely set foot in art galleries- of if they do, they certainly don’t spend forty minutes with an installation work in a state of absolute rapture as I saw a great many people doing at Fabrica. The only other recent example of this I can think of was Susan Hiller’s ‘Witness’ (also with numerous speakers and sound sources) at Tate Britain this spring, which likewise had people mesmerised and heedless of time or quotidian concerns.

Cardiff’s installation also helps us to a visceral, instinctive understanding of the aforementioned geometry and calculation is Tallis’ work, by allowing us to “physically” dissect it by moving through or around it. In these respects if in no others, Cardiff has done a service to gallery goers that relatively few contemporary artists seem to even think worthy of them: through her work and Tallis’ she has made a real connection with real people without compromising herself or condescending.

The majority of people seemed not to even consciously notice that the “silent” portion before the recording loops around is not silent at all, but full of the distinctly non-celestial mutterings, small talk, gripes and fidgets of the choir as they prepare to sing. This latter, subtle touch is definitely the product of an artist’s sensibility, both undermining and celebrating the petty ordinariness of the individuals who have come together to stir our emotions in a way that each of them alone couldn’t do.

Laurie Anderson didn’t seem very impressed, though. Straight in through one door, right across the middle of the room, and straight out of the other. Silly Laurie. LAURIE SEZ JANET NEEDZ MOAR PRETENSION.

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