JANET CARDIFF The Forty Part Motet
The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
September 10 – December 8, 2013
The bricks traversed the Atlantic singly. They were each numbered on all six faces and packaged in individual crates. Before that, they were joined in a church in Fuentidueña, Spain. Cut from limestone in the 12th century, they formed the apse—the semicircular, easterly area that frames a church’s altar. The church at Fuentidueña deteriorated over time, and its site became a graveyard. The apse, having been made with special care and expense, survived, and absorbed the salts that buried bodies let seep.
The bricks arrived in New York in 1960. They were unpacked at the Cloisters—the Metropolitan Museum’s satellite site for medieval art—and again made to form the apse. The structure, salty and indexical, is one of the many excerpted histories of the museum. It crowns the Cloisters’s Fuentidueña Chapel, at the top of a hill at the top of Manhattan. The setting makes a felicitous frame for a different kind of reunion, also meticulously engineered: Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (2001). The sound sculpture marks the Cloisters’s first exhibition of contemporary art.
The installation comprises 40 speakers tracing the inside perimeter of the Fuentidueña Chapel; each speaker emanates a single voice singing its part in Thomas Tallis’s a capella motet, Spem in Alium (1573). Cardiff’s work loops a 14-minute, 40-channel track that moves from three minutes of shuffling and whispers into 11 minutes of song. The volume swells and wanes, and the sound courses around the room, volleyed between sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. To stand in the center is to be in the midst of the voices, and, often, to be overwhelmed. At the periphery, the experience is intimate—the separate recordings, which preserve clearings of throats and goings off-key, become individual portraits of the singers.
Since they sang for Cardiff’s recording apparati in 2000, the children in the choir have grown up; a few of the older singers have died. Motet has toured the voices, such as they were, widely during this time. Like the building temporarily housing it—and like, perhaps, its audiences—Motet incorporates the past as material, not as referent. The installation doesn’t recreate a moment, but evokes a mood. History pervades it: the work is familiar; the recording is old; the composition, older. And yet the piece heralds the contemporary at the Cloisters. Its essence is contemporary.
Both the intimacy and the overwhelm of Motet require modern artifice. Audiences could not bask so unobtrusively in the center of a choir performing in real time, nor could they press up to real singers so closely. The speakers, if humanoid in shape and height, relieve us of our reverence by being black boxes of hardware. They don’t even disguise their cords. Such overt artifice is freeing: neither aura nor compliance with courtesy tempers our engagement with the voices—which remain resolutely human.
The artifice doesn’t compromise, but makes, the experience. It allows the fragmentation of the work, which, like that of the apse, is neither violent nor final. The isolation of parts is an unnatural means that feels, like the transatlantic limbo of bricks, somehow brave and, like urbanites avoiding eye contact, sometimes necessary. We can wend our way through at will.
The freedom Motet furnishes feels congruous at the Cloisters, and familiar in New York. Its possibility is peculiar to built spaces, drawn from both artfulness and historical cachet, and no less authentic for being contrived.
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