The sublime is concerned with place. Art is not always assertive, but curators can be. The wrong art in the wrong place at the wrong time creates a dissonant experience that leaves the viewer (and one assumes, also the artist) unmoved, even disappointed.
The gallery setting, for many (most?) works of art is unfortunate. The gallery is a cold space on two levels: a) The boxy space is utilitarian, established to present a rotating coterie of styles, artists, and crowds. The lighting is bright. There are no shadows. The walls are white and clinical. b) The gallery exists primarily not to showcase innovative or cutting edge art and artists, but rather to sell. If the work does not have a chance to sell—to make a profit—then it won't appear. Leave more altruistic endeavors to creative curators (like the recent spate of shows at the New Museum) or to scrappy, out of the way galleries in less-than-chic neighborhoods.
Dimension, intimacy, solemnity—they're all lost in a fluorescent-bathed, poured cement space. That's why installing Janet Cardiff's "Murder of Crows" in the Park Avenue Armory in 2012, for example, was an inspired move, one that elevated the piece to another dimension. At one point in the show I was momentarily convinced that a Russian army was marching toward me out the inky surroundings. That Armory show was a dramatic and refreshing shift for an installation that had been making the rounds in galleries for four years.
Cardiff's "The Forty Part Motet" (2001) is also not new; it's been around the gallery block for over a decade. "Motet" consists of forty high-fidelity speakers positioned on stands at equal heights in an oval. The piece continuously loops three minutes of quietly spoken interlude and eleven minutes of the forty-part motet Spem in alium numquam habui (1556?/1573?) by Tudor composer Thomas Tallis. Spem in alium numquam habui roughly translates to "In No Other Is My Hope." Each of the forty singers in the chorus were miked, so you can hear distinctly the bass, tenor, and soprano individuals that make up the whole.
Until now, "Motet" was shown in spaces that diminished the work. In the gallery, the ethereal undertones of this uplifting work don't stand a chance. The gallery is a mood killer, to say nothing of removing the spiritual.
The most recent iteration of Cardiff's work is set in the Fuentidueña Chapel, one gallery of The Met's medieval Spanish cloisters. By leaps and bounds the space is warmer and more intimate than any gallery could hope to be. It's also the best place to set "Motet."
Cardiff's "Motet" is not new, but it has been renewed. In this religious setting, the work has finally been given the treatment it deserves.
The experience is immersive. One can stand in the center and absorb the music as if you were surrounded by forty choir members, or you can walk around and listen to individual singers, the audio being so clear the speakers begin to take on personalities of their own. I found myself trying to imagine what each of them looked like, creating small personalities and visages in my own mind. On more than one occasion I glanced over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of the singer, only to see a blank speaker staring back at me. The voices were so close, so intimate, so lifelike.
Almost immediately upon entering the installation I had goosebumps, and very quickly I had tears in my eyes. I was not expecting to be destroyed by angelic voices, and yet my mind and spirit were dismantled. I felt exposed, ready for a spiritual awakening. The impact was total, ethereal. spiritual, moving. I wasn't alone. Variously in the crowd people shut their eyes, losing themselves in the heavenly music. Some grinned with delight while others were visibly moved, even unnerved. Nobody who entered that sacred oval left soon.
Of great significance is the disruption of the status quo within the Cloisters' space. That is, "Motet" upends the silence. The church is a space in which, as often as not, quietude reigns supreme. Prayer is a silent activity. We are called to deep silence and meditation, so that we may be alone with our thoughts and with a higher being. "Motet" disrupts that possibility.
"A philosopher once asked the Buddha: without words, without the wordless, will you tell me the truth? The Buddha kept silent. Since real silence is beyond both words and wordlessness, by this answer the philosopher was freed from delusion."*
The delusion is that a higher something exists. Whether that something is a god ... or art ... is up to "Motet's" congregants.
"Motet" is simultaneously eery, haunting, glorious, and uplifting. The religious space for such an experience is magnificent and exalting. This particular installation of "The Forty Part Motet" must be the crowning achievement for Cardiff's work. How many times did I fight the urge to lift my eyes to the holy man hanging from the ceiling? I didn't want to go that far, that deep. There was struggle and inner turmoil. Christ, what an experience...
* From the Encyclopedia of Religion (1987), as quoted in The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images (Taschen, 2013).