Artist Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet,” a musical sanctuary for the soul, at Fort Mason Center’s new Gallery 308
There are several spine-tingling moments in the 16th century court composer Thomas Tallis’ devotional choral work “Spem in Alium” which expresses man’s hope and trust in the Lord. Canadian sound artist Janet Cardiff’s immersive sound installation, “The Forty Part Motet,” quite literally teases them out. Forty speakers on six-foot tall stands are arranged in an oval. Visitors can walk throughout the installation and hear the individual unaccompanied voices─bass, baritone, alto, tenor and child soprano─one part per loudspeaker─ of 40 choir singers, who were recorded in England’s Salisbury Cathedral as well as the melded symphony of choral sounds, altogether creating a transcendent experience.
Last Thursday, installation was unveiled at Fort Mason Center’s new Gallery 308, making it the space’s inaugural exhibition and first time the installation has been shown in California. Cardiff’s exquisite layering of the voices creates a profound and intimate experience even within a public space. I can’t recall the last time I slowed down enough to be still and quiet for any significant length of time. As I took in the music, the hairs rose on my arms and tears welled. I stayed for four playings. ( The 14-minute piece is a continuous audio loop, comprised of 11 minutes of singing and a three minute interlude.) With the horror that unfolded in Paris over the weekend and uncertainty about what might follow, and the march of the pending holidays, centering oneself in this immersive musical experience is nurturing and healing. I can’t wait to go back.
Cardiff’s contemporary re-working of this classic was created 14 years ago, in 2001 and the piece has since travelled the world. Cardiff originally studied photography and print-making before experimenting with sound and moving image. She grabbed the attention of the art world in the mid-1990s with her site-specific works which explored the sculptural and physical attributes of sound and often had actual physical impacts on the viewers. Born in Canada, she currently lives in rural British Columbia, and works in collaboration with her husband and partner, George Bures Miller. Cardiff and Miller’s pivotal moment came in 2001, when they represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennale and won the Biennale’s Premio Prize and Benesse Prize. Their artwork was “Paradise Institute” which recreated a 16 seat movie theatre and entangled viewers so that they became witnesses to a possible crime playing out on screen and within the audience─an idea that was cutting edge at the time. The couple’s work has been included top-tier exhibitions and biennales ever since. Recently, they participated in Soundscapes at London’s National Gallery, the 19th Biennale of Sydney in 2014, and dOCUMENTA (13).
“The Forty Part Motet’s” appearance in San Francisco marks a pivotal time for its two co-presentors─Fort Mason Center and SFMOMA (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). It marks a new beginning for Gallery 308, which is a gorgeous light-filled 4,000 square-foot gallery space with views of the San Francisco Bay and the Marin neighborhood. The space originally housed Fort Mason’s maritime trade and repair shops and its three-year renovation was undertaken by Jensen Architects, the creators of SFMOMA’s acclaimed roof-top garden.
“Fort Mason Center has been around for 40 years and it’s been viewed as a rental space,” said Mark Tao, CFO, Fort Mason Center. “We’ve gone through a re-imaging process to put contemporary art at the forefront. Gallery 308 was once ‘military building 308,’ so we’ve reclaiming something from the past in our name which fits our industrial chic look. We worked for over two years to bring this work here and we’re very proud.”
Other changes are in the air at Fort Mason Center too. The San Francisco Art Institute, which currently has campuses in Russian Hill and Dogpatch, is moving to Pier 2 and will start construction there next year. FLAX art and design store recently opened a 5,000-square-foot store in Building D, after losing their space downtown.
Cardiff’s installation marks the grand finale for SFMOMA’s On the Go programming—the museum’s dynamic off-site art events while its building is closed for expansion construction. (Click here to read about SFMOMA’s 2013 collaboration with the Sonoma County Museum.) The new SFMOMA will open in spring 2016. Cardiff’s installation is actually on loan from Napa collectors Pamela and Richard Kramlich’s world-renowned holdings of video and media art. Rudolf Frieling, curator of media arts at SFMOMA was pivotal in orchestrating the loan.
Cardiff’s solo works have long been a part of SFMOMA’s collection and the museum additionally commissioned two audio and video works by Cardiff: Chiaroscuro 1 (1997), made for the exhibition Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties; and The Telephone Call (2001), featured in 010101: Art in Technological Times.
ARThound chats with Janet Cardiff and George Miller
I had a chance to chat privately with Janet Cardiff just before Thursday’s press preview and with her husband/collaborator George Miller in the gallery while the work was playing. Here’s our conversation─
You’ve installed this work in so many spaces now, from those that are overtly spiritual to those that much more secular; what is special about this space here in San Francisco, set against the backdrop of the Bay?
Janet Cardiff─What first and foremost matters to me is the acoustics of the space, how the voices sound to me in the space and it works quite nicely here. The visual is beautiful but the power is in the sound. I like this space because, when you’re looking out, the music serves as a backdrop, like a filmic score of the city and the water. I also like the roughness of the space, its rawness that echoes what it used to be. Because it’s painted white, it’s also very pristine, very contemplative which works with the spirituality of the piece, its whiteness and a light
Is this a spiritual artwork?
Janet Cardiff─Oh yes, Thomas Tallis most definitely wrote this for that purpose with words like “I put all my faith in you, my Lord.” When he was writing, he was very aware of the voices going up into the cathedrals like angel voices. It’s inspired me in many ways, on many levels. I’ve learned so much about absence and presence. Every single speaker is an individual recording of a singer, so each speaker in the space becomes that person. The choir was recorded singing together in a room but the singers were spaced apart and every singer had a microphone. So, it does become very anthropomorphic and a virtual representation of those people. It’s like these people, too, are stopped in time. This setting brings me right back to PS1, its first showing, with these windows overlooking the city. I was reminded of the potency of music to move you and of such a brilliant composition from Thomas Tallis which creates such an emotional release for people. Also, the whiteness of the space adds to the spiritual quality of the piece.
Do you have a particular interest in old music? How was this particular piece brought to your attention?
Janet Cardiff─I was recording in England and one of the singers I was working with gave me a cd of Tallis because she recognized that I liked three-dimensional sound. And that always been an interest of mine, this idea that sound is an invisible media but, at the same time, it affects you emotionally, actually going into your body in a way that something visual can’t. It’s also fascinating that you also aware of it subconsciously in a sculptural way….I immediately saw this as all around me and became so fascinated with the piece. With a lot of finesse, expertise and hard work and with the help of my husband and my producer in England, we were able to record it with the Salsbury Cathedral choir, who were not all professionals. I wanted to work with children for the soprano voices. We brought in singers from all over England for a recording session that was very intense. We had about three hours of recording material and edited it down to the price it is today. I found it very interesting, from the very beginning, to make this virtual choir of a piece from the 1500’s. I knew the piece was written in a religious context, like a lot of music then, but I really did not know that it would have the type of effect that it has on people in all these different environments.
What is the best way to describe it?
Janet Cardiff─Sound is very sculptural for me. I don’t usually make definitions which tend to limit how people might experience the work but this is an installation, a virtual choir.
As a technician what does it mean to be happy with the sound in this space?
George Miller─I’m pretty happy right now. Actually, Titus Maderlechner tuned this piece, I’m just a collaborator but I used to set this up before Titus came on. Every space absorbs the frequencies in a different way so when it moves to a new place, tuning is required to make sure that it feels right, right being appropriate to the piece. At first, the bass (the lower register voices) weren’t coming through because glass in this space was absorbing the sound and they weren’t getting the presence they needed. We brought those voices up to fill the space more. The space also responded to the sopranos and sounded too harsh, so we had to work with that too.
Everyone talks about the Cloisters as “the place” but Janet and Titus set that up and I wasn’t there. For me this is as good as it gets, the sound is so clear. I was tearing up and I’ve heard this thousands of times. For me, it never gets boring and it always gives me a reaction. If I don’t get that reaction, which is a tingling up and down my spine, then I know I have to make it do that.
Details: The Forty Part Motet by Janet Cardiff runs through January 18, 2016 at Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center, Landmark Building A, 2 Marina Blvd, San Francisco, 94123 (Greens Restaurant is at the other end of this building.) Hours: Wednesday-Saturday: noon to 8 PM; Sunday: 11 AM to 5 PM. Closed: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day. Tickets: Admission is free but complimentary tickets are required for entry and can be reserved at motettickets.org. Due to high demand, visitors are advised to reserve tickets well in advance. A limited number of same-day walk-up tickets will be available to visitors throughout the installation. Follow #40PartMotet for availability. Parking: ample paid parking is available on an hourly basis at Fort Mason Center and payment is via credit card in machine.
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