Janet Cardiff at P.S. 1 MoMA: It’s rare when a work of art has the power to transform, transport so completely. Forty-part motet is such a work. 40 speakers are arranged in an ellipse in the gallery, each playing an individually recorded member of a choir. The unaccompanied choir sings a work in Latin by Thomas Tallis, a 16th century English composer. [see this National Gallery of Canada link for a more detailed description.]
You move among the speakers, pausing in front of one, trying to hear two or three at once, then move into the center to hear them all. The wall text describes the artist’s interest in the role of the individual, the impression of the collective, and the individual’s ability to succeed as part of a whole.
Does this adequately explain why every person who entered the gallery became transfixed, practically held captive once they figured out how the piece worked? Or why nearly every single person there looked like their thoughts were a million miles away? Or why almost everyone was caught wiping tears away? I don’t think so.
Cardiff’s work creates a simultaneous, visceral feeling of both presence and absence. The members of the choir are right in front of us; we hear them, sense them, move among them. But they’re not. They’re gone. And the work, by its nature, lets us know that they’re not there. In this city, at this time (the show opened on October 14), a work that aspired to one level of impact has achieved something almost unimaginably transcendent.