Friday, July 07, 2006

Janet Cardiff at the Rooms

My friend (and sometime enemy), the video artist Emily Vey Duke, once asked me to describe my experience of beauty.

After some thought, I told her that no matter what it was, an art piece, a lilac tree, a sunset, a person, kittens, whatever, that my initial response to the beautiful was a kind of mixture of sadness and happiness, at once.

You mean tenderness, she said.

Yes, I said.

The first time I experienced Janet Cardiff’s Forty Piece Motet was the day after my girlfriend had left me. The last word she had ever spoken to me was loser. This was in Halifax years ago and Cardiff’s piece had just hit the big time, as it were, it seemed like everyone everywhere was really going ape-shit for it. I sat in Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery and bawled like a fucking baby, complete strangers standing around trying not to look at me, the voices from Cardiff’s speakers raised in worship.

So when I went back to Cardiff’s piece this time around, at the Rooms just a little while ago, I was curious as to what effect the piece would have on me.

It has become very un-hip to talk about the beautiful in the art world these days, but there is simply no other way to describe Cardiff’s stunning sound installation. The piece, for those not familiar, is a recording of Thomas Tallis' polyphonic choral work from 1575, Spem in alium. Tallis' Latin text translates this way:

I have never put my hope in any other but in you God of Israel who will be angry and yet become again gracious and who forgives all the sins of suffering man. Lord God Creator of Heaven and Earth look upon our lowliness.

The work consists of forty speakers on stands at about six feet from the floor, arranged in a semi-circle in the gallery with metre upon metre of fine copper audio wire connecting them. There’s one speaker for each singer, each voice mastered individually so that you can stroll along hearing each member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir or sit in the middle of the semi-circular arrangement to get the full effect. It’s an extremely elegant installation, and as I’ve said several times, you could put a lump of dogshit in the Rooms art galleries and it would still look spectacular.

And what happened, you ask? Why, I felt all the old feelings begin to stir again. I thought I could recall every detail of my ex-girlfriend’s face as she left the apartment for the last time so long ago. I felt less alone in the world, and yet, at the same time, the feeling of loneliness I suppose we all carry around with us every day was made greater and more poignant by the beautiful voices coming out of the speakers that surrounded me. I thought about how wonderful it would be if there really was a God of Israel who forgave everything, and about how beautiful it would be if there really was a love that went on and on, forever and ever, amen.

The only question that remains about this work, as it does with all good pieces of art, is whether repeated visits to the gallery will produce the same feelings of tenderness and awe that my initial visits provoked. Or whether, tragically, and against one’s best efforts, those feelings begin to fade.

Janet Cardiff’s Forty Piece Motet is a heartbreakingly beautiful marriage of cutting-edge technology and classical hymn. It’s at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery until September 17th 2006. Don’t miss it.