An installation in The Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel demonstrates how contemporary art can invigorate a historic setting. The Forty Part Motet, 2001 is a fourteen-minute sound installation by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff (b. 1957). Within the twelfth-century limestone apse in this Romanesque space, Cardiff has installed forty human-height high fidelity audio speakers which line the boundaries of the room. The speakers are displayed at eye level on a thin support and summon a figurative presence.
Each speaker emits separate voice recordings of a section of the 16th century composer Thomas Tallis’ forty-part composition Spem in alium numquam habui (In No Other Is My Hope). A capella voices — bass, baritone, alto, tenor, soprano — spill from distinct speakers, so visitors to the chapel can hear individual parts or take in the full chorus. It is a transporting auditory and physical experience as inanimate electronics are suddenly animate because of the power of the musical composition they generate. Visitors to The Cloisters become absorbed because an austere, traditional sacred space is newly relevant when a contemporary interpretation revitalizes its historicity. The visual simplicity of Cardiff’s installation vivifies the Medieval surround.
The Forty Part Motet is in an edition of four. The Met’s loan is from the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The work is also in the artist’s collection, The Museum of Modern Art and Inhotim in Brazil. The piece has been exhibited extensively and internationally: in 2012, it was on view at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England. Last spring, the Cleveland Museum of Art hosted the work. In previous venues, Cardiff’s project was displayed in a standard gallery setting: a clean, white room became a disappearing backdrop. Here, in a setting with rich acoustics and sacred meaning, new significance imbues the work. It is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first gambit in showing contemporary art at the venerable Cloisters. Anne L. Strauss, Associate Curator in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met, collaborated with Peter Barnet, Senior Curator in the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. According to Strauss, “The Forty Part Motet is the first presentation of contemporary art at The Cloisters, and it’s also the first exhibition of sound art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” Cardiff’s sound engineer (his official title is “tonmeister”) worked with the curators to set up the installation.
Because of the subtlety of The Forty Part Motet – the reverence of the historic period, the sculptural simplicity of the work — it is a discriminating choice. The artist has commented on how sound art can command a three dimensional space, not only through physical objects in the room, but by the overwhelming humanistic presence of voice. “The main emphasis is on the sculptural quality,” Cardiff said about her installation, “and the sense that audio can be a physical construct.”
“The Forty Part Motet” is on view at The Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, New York, through December 8, 2013.
Click here for a short excerpt of The Forty Part Motet.