In uncertain times, what do we seek from art?
Is it guidance, a shining light out of the abyss? Could it be introspection, a space to critique and meditate on the now and the bigger picture? Or perhaps comfort — reassurance that despite our fears, everything will be all right.
These are a few of the things I pondered while visiting “Janet Cardiff: Forty-Part Motet,” the latest special exhibit at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The Canadian-born Cardiff is known for working (often with her husband and partner, George Bures Miller) almost exclusively with sound installations.
Her “audio sculpture” of 40 high-fidelity speakers is arranged in an oval inside the Bloch Building. Each speaker emits the voice of a member of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir during a 14-minute a cappella recording of English composer Thomas Tallis’ famous 16th century composition “Spem in Alium” (“In No Other Is My Hope”).
The speakers are arranged in eight groups of five: alto, soprano, bass, baritone and tenor. As is typical with a motet, each singer chimes in and out, only occasionally uniting as one sound. Visitors are encouraged to walk among the speakers and listen to the individual groups (and the five voices within), or sit in the middle of the oval for a more holistic experience.
Cardiff’s goal is simple: to transcend the audience/performer barrier and transport listeners from crowd to stage.
“Like walking into a piece of music,” Cardiff says in her artist’s statement. “Forty-Part Motet” also challenges traditional ideas of sculpture as dimensional, tangible monoliths. Does strength require shape? Does hope?
Leesa Fanning, the Nelson’s curator of contemporary art, first encountered “Forty-Part Motet” in 2001 and again in 2013 while visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario. It was after the latter visit that she wanted to bring the wildly popular exhibit (it has been featured in over 50 locations around the world) to the Nelson: “Motet” “is part of a bigger category of something I’ve been working on for quite some time — the spiritual in contemporary art.”
Gallery L14, with its alabaster walls and vaulting architecture, is perfect for something so spiritual. Fanning plays with this nuance, allowing the wing’s shades to remain open (a first for a Bloch exhibit) and absorb the best of the day’s sunlight: “It’s like a secular cathedral,” she says.
It’s a great contrast with the nearby gloomy “Multitude, Solitude,” Dave Heath’s photography exhibition that’s a rumination on loneliness. “Forty-Part Motet” is purposefully juxtaposed, bright and luminous.
“Dave Heath is about people who are alone. The images are kind of dark in mood,” Fanning says. “You kind of go from the darkness of Dave Heath to the light of the Janet Cardiff.”
The emotions, like the sounds, came to me in waves while immersed within Cardiff’s sculpture: uncertainty, wonder, curiosity. It’s normally a faux pas to tell someone how to experience art, but I can’t imagine (and observed no one during my time at the exhibit) leaving “Forty-Part Motet” without sitting through at least two renditions. I sat through four; two in the middle and two walking among the speakers.
There’s a drama in hearing music in a foreign language. “Spem in Alium” is in Latin, so my focus was less on the words than the raw emotions they elicited. I looked inward. My mind turned to the political season that ravaged and divided our nation; I found uneasiness in the silent voids that permeated “Spem’s” beginning and hope in the crescendos punctuating its climax.
Calm and connection overtook me as I walked along with the music. There’s a peculiar sense of community present when you walk among the speakers and notice the flaws of more than a few of the individual choir members; even the untrained ear can catch a little pitchiness or a voice crack. Yet still, the larger project never suffers for it. It’s an allegory to humanity: Individually we are flawed, yet when we unite, we are at once something greater.
The museum translates “Spem in Alium” into English at the exhibit’s onset, though judging by audience reception, I’m not so sure the decoding was necessary. A few feet outside of the oval, the Nelson invites participants to write down their experiences and tack them to a wall in the lobby adjacent to the display.
“One of the most profound experiences I have ever had in a museum,” one visitor wrote.
“Therapeutic experience. I felt as if all the nonsense distractions in my mind were filtered out and replaced with beauty,” wrote another.
“Choking back tears,” says another.
One man, Fanning tells me, drove 200 miles to experience “Forty-Part Motet” and was in tears by the song’s end.
“People really, really need this kind of emotional comfort and release,” Fanning says. “This exhibit couldn’t have come at a more perfect time.”
If you go
“Janet Cardiff: Forty-Part Motet” will show through March 19, 2017. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St. $12; children under 12, free (price includes Dave Heath’s “Multitude, Solitude” exhibit). Nelson-Atkins.org