Getting to the Janet Cardiff installation at The Cloisters was like a modern-day quest for some kind of Holy Grail, which in the end seemed appropriate. After my phone died at the 191st St. subway stop—leaving me with no guide through the unfamiliar paths of Fort Tryon Park—and after circling the labyrinthine rooms and hallways that make up The Cloister’s architecture, I finally found The Forty Part Motet, Cardiff’s sound installation.
For the 11-minute score, Cardiff reworked the Tudor-era composition Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui (In No Other Is My Hope) (1573) by Thomas Tallis. The piece, originally intended for recital in churches and cathedrals, logically suits the religious iconography of The Cloisters, while also mirroring the compound’s collaged nature. Constructed in reference to no singular structure, the Cloisters function as an ensemble of many historical precedents. In the Fuentidueña Chapel, Catalan frescos of the Virgin and Child as well as the Adoration of the Magi cover the walls, and a life-size wooden crucifix hangs at the foot of the 12-century apse. The installation of The Forty Part Motet bridges both centuries and geographic borders.
Normally, a crowded exhibition space would be an irritating obstacle, but in the context of Cardiff’s work, the attendees play a very different role. The installation consists of 40 speakers placed in an amoeba-shaped circuit around the chapel, following the contours of the walls, each speaker emitting the voice of a single choral singer. Though I was aware of the echoing notes’ disembodiment, the recording’s fidelity made me continuously scan the room and look at the other visitors, trying to catch the source of the sounds. This deceptive trompe l’oreille effect filled the open mouths scattered around the crowd with the bass, baritones, tenors, altos, and sopranos ringing in my ears. To release my mind from its hunt for the absent singers, I closed my eyes. The chapel’s walls fell away and the space swelled into a limitless expanse filled with harmonies reverberating around me. Cardiff gifts her audience with the unique experience of listening to a choir while surrounded by its members, remarking that she wanted “the audience to be able to experience a piece of music from the viewpoint of the singers.” The voices fade in and out of audibility, morphing the space with their sonorous undulations. Because the installation is completely immersive, I understand how people could find the experience spiritually illuminating.
Despite the work’s obvious relationship to the religious architecture, Cardiff previously installed The Forty Part Motet in places with varying degrees of holiness, including Rideau Chapel National Gallery, Canada; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and even Fondation d’Entreprise Hermès, Tokyo. Cardiff’s inclusive attitude toward her choice of exhibition locations for The Forty Part Motet questions what constitutes a sacred space. Depending on the individual, it could be within a cathedral, inside the walls of a gallery or museum, or even in nature. While in the Fuentidueña Chapel, I could not help but think of my journey through the park on the way to The Cloisters. And on my way back to the subway, lingering to stand among the trees as the mid-afternoon light illuminated each tiny gem hanging from the deciduous branches, rivaling the most elaborate frescos or gold-leafed idols, my mind echoed with polyphony of The Forty Part Motet.
The Forty Part Motet is on view in the Fuentidueña Chapel of The Cloisters through December 8, 2013.