Sublime Sound: Janet Cardiff at the High

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Janet Cardiff's The Forty Part Motet at the High. The installation, notes Kooi, "simultaneously enabl[es] and den[ies] a transcendental experience."
Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The installation, notes Kooi, simultaneously enables and denies a transcendental experience.
Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (A reworking of “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis 1573) is oftentimes described as an artwork that brings its audience to transcendence and tears.1 The 40-channel sound installation, originally produced in 2001, has by now traveled throughout the world and been written on extensively, which is conceptually interesting for this work considering its polyphonic and citational qualities. Though similar things are often said about Cardiff’s piece, there are, in fact, many other directions to go, directions that are more disconcerting than joyful.

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

I have experienced this installation three times now—at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, the Cloisters in New York, and now the High in Atlanta, each iteration different from the others. (It was originally produced by Field Art Projects with the Arts Council of England, Canada House, the Salisbury Festival and Salisbury Cathedral Choir, BALTIC Gateshead, the New Art Gallery Walsall, and the NOW Festival Nottingham. At the AGO, amid the Henry Moore sculptures and within the context of Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s retrospective “Lost in the Memory Palace,” I sensed a particular moment in art history and the artist’s oeuvre. At the Cloisters, nestled underneath a suspended crucifix, I felt enveloped by beauty. At the High, in a bare gallery near the elevators, I experienced a strange austerity, an oppressive anxiety that rested just under my skin, threatening to emerge.

At the High, Cardiff’s work is rendered an almost awkward object, one that struggles with its environment, simultaneously enabling and denying a transcendent experience. With sound, Cardiff sculpts a space that surrounds the visitor like an invisible sonic dome.

Encircled by speakers, I felt as if I was occupying a void instead of a plenitude. This ring, though seemingly full of beautiful voices, is marked by a sense of emptiness, even when filled with listeners. The bare white walls of the gallery further reinforce this perceived emptiness. This is a space set apart. The deluge of crescendos is haunting, with voices seeming to approach and recede. Gaps and silences cut the polyphony.

The exhibition of the The Forty Part Motet at The Cloisters in 2013 marked the first time that the medieval-look-alike chapel had ever displayed a piece of contemporary art.
The Forty Part Motet was the first contemporary artwork to be shown at the Cloisters in New York, in 2013.

The Sacred Carnivalesque

Kirsten Stolle's Only You Can Prevent A Forest on view at Halsey Institute through Dec 10, 2022

The source material for The Forty Part Motet is Thomas Tallis’s 16th-century Renaissance motet Spem in alium. The Renaissance motet occupies an interesting relationship to the eccliesiastical since sacred texts are its source, though it came to include secular texts and could be performed outside the church.2 We could consider the Renaissance motet as a turning of the sacred into the carnivalesque.

In his book Rabelais and His World, Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin describes the 16th-century carnival and its parodies of the serious rituals of the Church and the monarchy. The carnival was a folk outlet, a time when mocking the consecrated was allowed: “They [carnivals] offered a completely different, nonofficial, extraecclesiastical and extrapolitical aspect of the world, of man, and of human relations; they built a second world and a second life outside officialdom.”3  Though Cardiff’s installation is not humorous, there is an element of an accepted sacrilegiosity. However, this gesture is placed within the sanctified space of the art gallery, a revered, legitimizing space.

Medieval antiphonary, on view at the High.
A Renaissance antiphonary, on view at the High in “Make A Joyful Noise.”

Down the stairs from Cardiff’s installation is the exhibition “Make A Joyful Noise: Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral.” The voices singing Spem in alium are audible while viewing handmade, gold-leafed, musical manuscripts that were made roughly during the same time period as Tallis’s composition. Cardiff’s piece evokes the sacred, but in the context of its installation at the High, it engages with the secular. In this temple—the museum gallery—the work of art takes the place of the supreme being.

Sovereign Nothingness

French philosopher and Surrealist writer Georges Bataille’s writings on sovereignty as a profound NOTHING offers an intricate reading of Cardiff’s installation. During the 11 minutes of the soundscape, the viewer is wrapped in a present, a sovereign present: “What is sovereign in fact is to enjoy the present time without having anything else in view but this present time.”4  For Bataille, the experience of the present moment without futurity is “miraculous,” an event that is brought about by intoxication and beauty.5  The Forty Part Motet doesn’t allow the listener to stay in this moment. The three minutes of intermission—agonizing minutes of throat-clearing, banter, vocal warm-ups, etc.—create anticipation. Then, the notes of song ring again: “The miraculous moment when anticipation dissolves into NOTHING, detaching us from the ground on which we were groveling, in the concatenation of useful activity.”6

Cardiff and Miller's The Killing Machine, which was inspired by Kafka's "In the Penal Colony" and the system of capital punishment in the United States as a whole, takes an approach filled with irony, commenting on machines that are designed to torture and/or kill.
Cardiff and Miller’s The Killing Machine was inspired by Kafka’s In the Penal Colony and the system of capital punishment in the United States.

Compared to some of Cardiff’s other works that are more formidable, The Forty Part Motet becomes more sublime than beautiful. The Killing Machine, made with her husband and collaborator George Bures Miller, is a good example of this: robotic arms on an armature move around a dental chair covered in faux fur, with the climax being the shooting of air guns, weapons that are often used to slaughter cattle. Here, a machinery of death takes the place of the executioner.

In The Forty Part Motet, a manufactured object, a loud speaker, takes the place of each singer. For Bataille, the manufacturing of the tool is the instantiation of the “non-I” and the creation of a world that is real, the profane world. In a critique of the profane world as capitalist, Bataille argues that the profane world of real objects has to participate in a sacrifice, thus establishing sacred transgression. In the case of The Forty Part Motet, the body of the singer is sacrificed in the act of technological mediation. What the viewer witnesses, then, is an overwhelming spectrality—no human bodies accompany these voices. The listener is surrounded by an impending immateriality.

Humility and Cruelty

The full title of Tallis’s composition is Spem in alium nunquam habui, which from the Latin translates as “In No Other Is My Hope.”7  What does it mean to have hope, and to have hope in what? In this song, God is the only being in which one can have hope. In the English, the song reads:

“I have never put my hope in any /
besides you, O God of Israel, /
who grows angry, but then, /
becoming gracious, forgives all the /
sins of men in their tribulation:
Lord God, creator of heaven and
earth, look upon our lowliness.”8

This is a God to be feared. The voices the listener hears are claiming humility in the face of their God.

Antonin Artaud and his Theater of Cruelty sought to surround the audience with an overwhelming spectacle.9  The viewer could not escape the performance; it was everywhere she turned. Similarly, Cardiff’s installation surrounds the listener with a sound that penetrates, bringing her to a fundamental immanence while also enabling a transcendence.

“The Forty Part Motet” is on view at the High Museum of Art through January 18. 

Meredith Kooi is a visual and performance artist based in Atlanta. She is the editor for Radius, an experimental radio broadcast platform based in Chicago. Her recent performance work has been presented in Atlanta at Eyedrum, MINT Gallery, the High Museum of Art, and the Goat Farm Arts Center, and her art criticism has been featured in ASPECT: The Chronicle of New Media Art, Bad at Sports, BURNAWAY, and Temporary Art Review.

Cardiff's installation, which is on view concurrently with "'Make Joyful Music:' Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral will be on view at The High through January 18, 2015.
Cardiff’s installation, which is exhibited concurrently with “‘Make A Joyful Noise:’ Renaissance Art and Music at Florence Cathedral,” will be on view at the High through January 18, 2015.


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1. See, for example, Jim Dwyer, “Moved to Tears at the Cloisters by a Ghostly Tapestry of Music,” New York Times, Sept. 19, 2013.
3. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984, pp. 5-6.
4. Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share, vols II & III, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Zone Books, 1993, p. 199.
5. Ibid., pp. 199-200.
6. Ibid., p. 203.
7. High Museum wall text.
9. Antonin Artaud, The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards, New York: Grove Press, 1958.

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