Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff currently has a sound artwork on display in the Tate Modern: Forty Part Motet. Though not the first sound artwork to be exhibited in such a major gallery, this is still a significant moment for sound art.
Here’s a video about it made during its exhibition in KQED, San Francisco:
Right now, the work is located in the basement of the museum’s recently completed Blavatnik building, named after Leonard Blavatnik, USSR-born British billionaire investor (oil, chemical, music, film and property) who in 2015 made the biggest donation in Tate’s history (around £50m) to help fund it.
Forty Part Motet, originally created in 2001, immerses the gallery participant in a sound recording of Renaissance choral music (Thomas Tallis’s 1573 motet ‘Spem in Alium’)–a recording made with the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, produced by Field Art Projects, recorded by SoundMoves, and edited by Georges Bures Miller.
Each of the room’s speakers plays one of the 40 vocal lines written in the magnificent Tallis motet. The speakers are raised to average human head height, and their volume to average human voice level. The result is a rich, enchanting texture of sound. It’s a truly immersive aural experience: we’re used to listening to stereo, or, if we’re lucky, 5.1 surround sound. The sound sources are evenly distributed, like individual voices you would find in a concert, only facing in towards each other rather than towards a stage.
The installation is looped, each time lasting 14 minutes. ‘Spem in Alium’ takes 11 minutes and there’s a 3-minute intermission (despite the intermission being part of the work, the majority of gallery participants leave at this point, missing the disorientating talking voices, coughs and sounds of the absent choir as they prepare to sing).
With its inward-facing configuration of speakers, there is a kind of vanishing point; there’s a centre, a focal point at which these disembodied voices point. Cardiff is asking us to treat the work spatially, not just temporally.
I am interested in how sound may physically construct a space in a sculptural way and how a viewer may choose a path through this physical yet virtual space.
To this type of sound art the concept of using ‘space’ as the work’s medium is incredibly important.
But being provided with the necessary component that for many sound artworks is vital–‘space’–we as viewers must also appreciate the space that their work is in, not just the space that their work creates, to understand the work’s significance.
I want to discuss this work a little further. This next bit is entitled:
Historic moment or spatial crisis?
Sound art as an art form, though to an extent a product of the 1960s and 1970s New York art world, has not been fully accepted. Sound artist Susan Philipsz’s 2010 piece Lowlands was to some recent scholars on voice a poetic evocation of the intersection between personal identity, place and memory, but to one critic from The Telegraph, it was:
An empty gallery with a 3-part recording in which, unaccompanied, this sensitive soul sings a sad Scottish folk song about a ghost. I blame the judges. There are folk dancing societies all over London she is welcome to join, but please, don’t inflict this stuff on the rest of us.
And you can only imagine the controversy when the piece went on to win the Turner Prize the following year.
This difficulty has a history. It took 3 years and 5 different city organisations in order for Max Neuhaus to finally install his famous Times Square sound artwork in a pedestrian island in the New York City junction in 1977. The amount of bureaucracy seems quite over-the-top given that the installation was essentially a loudspeaker playing a drone sound in a chamber under a metal grate, wired up to a nearby lamppost and only needed maintaining by Neuhaus once a month.
The 1970s was a climate in which works with electronic media were rejected on the basis that they were a cultural infraction. American artist Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 1972 exhibition at University Art Museum in Berkeley, featuring a piece entitled Self Portrait as Another Person that used a magnetic tape recording of her voice, was shut down by gallery officials who claimed that ‘electronic media was not art and most certainly did not belong in a museum’.
If you add to this the practical difficulties of putting on a sound installation, such as the dependency on gallery staff to maintain installations, the effort it would take to install them, and the cost of producing something that would in the end be dismantled anyway, it’s easy to see how curators were disincentivised by the idea of putting on sound artworks.
The Blavatnik building intended to ‘redefine the museum for the twenty first century’. The reason for the building’s creation was not only the strain that 5 million visitors a year in a gallery designed for 2 million, but that
Different kinds of gallery spaces are needed to better display the works in the Collection. Film, video, photography and performance have become more essential strands of artistic practice, and artists have embraced new technologies. Ambitious and imaginative installations are now pushing traditional gallery spaces to their limits.
The 10-storey building houses a great potential for sound artists, helping them to reach new audiences with their work. This is a bold move by the gallery. It’s a pretty new thing for a gallery to make such a great investment in a new building that is going to exhibit works that are largely immaterial and more experience-focussed. It’s especially bold considering its location in prime real estate territory.
Cardiff’s work in particular is mobile and immaterial. It is a set of speakers playing a recording–but the set of speakers is not the work of art. The work of art is the ‘virtual’ space the installation aims to create. This space is not created as an actual space; it is a fictional and imaginary, like the worlds we construct and inhabit when we read a novel. The artwork is something you don’t see.
I was recently reading a famous book by Brian O’Doherty called The Ideology of the Gallery Space for my dissertation work. In the book, O’Doherty proposes the idea that the inside of the art gallery, in its most ideal form, should be isolated from everything in the outside world. The gallery, O’Doherty writes, is ‘an emblem of the estrangement of the artist from a society to which the gallery also provides access’. As a kind of ritual space, it should have the ‘sanctity of the church’.
With this in mind, the Blavatnik is not really a departure from this ideology (O’Doherty calls it the ‘white cube ideology’–referring to the fact that the walls are usually white and there are no windows). Nor does Cardiff’s piece disrupt this ideology within the Blavatnik space: you feel like you’re in another world completely–the world of the artist’s concept.
In the 1960s, there was a crisis (or revolution) in art as artists began to react to the art as object or product–paintings, sculptures, art that was made to be sold–and consider art as something that could be a process or an immaterial creation. At this time, artists, Michael Asher for instance, began incorporating gallery space into his works, and conceptual art and installation art were at their beginnings. Anti-bourgeois groups, like Fluxus, led the way in producing ephemeral performances. You also at this time have many artists leaving galleries to create works outside, such as the Land Art movement.
Many art networks such as video and sound art were rejected by galleries, but this rejection was often mutual as artists were protesting the fact that major galleries were funded by the same families that were supporting and funding the Vietnam war. Art that was exhibited in these galleries was seen as profiting from the war.
In today’s world, space is becoming an ever more valuable commodity. In the last 20 years, the average property price in the UK has doubled from 3.6 times average wage in 1997 to 7.2 times average wage. In a sense then, you could say that works of art in spaces such as the Tate’s new building profits from the same system that gives rise to such property inflation. Add to that Blavatnik’s history of investing in oil, and you might even have a recipe for arguing that sound art is profiting from climate change.
Back to the Forty Part Motet for a final reflection. Though there might be something ironical about art that uses space, in Cardiff’s work we are far removed from this reality. The artwork transforms the music of Tallis–something that in terms of capital has no monetary value except the value produced from performances, CDs and so on–into a kind of virtual spatial object.
Cardiff poetically recrafts the feeling of the churches in which Tallis’s monumental music was once sung, creating a surreal, virtual space where the speakers seem like time capsules for these lost voices or vessels connecting to a lost space. But for me, it is the clash of this virtual space with real space it occupies that is the most surreal.
I wonder if when the next crisis in art comes it will be ‘space’ itself that artists object to. I doubt it; it’s not in artists’ interests to bite the hand that feeds them. Nor do they have the teeth.
That said, the fact that the Forty Part Motet is mobile (i.e. produced with speakers–you just need a plug socket), the site of its installation is not as important to the work itself as it could be. The Tate is part of this particular manifestation of the work but not intrinsic to the work’s core. So in this case, I’d rather treat this as an historic moment: it’s a beautiful work that deserves attention. You should go see it while it’s on!