Shotgun Reviews

Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Henry Rittenberg reviews Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, co-presented by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in San Francisco.

Janet Cardiff. The Forty Part Motet, 2001; installation view, Gallery 308, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, San Francisco, 2015. Courtesy of Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: JKA Photography.

Janet Cardiff. The Forty Part Motet, 2001; installation view, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, gallery 308, San Francisco, 2015. Courtesy of Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: JKA Photography.

Spem in alium nunquam habui 
Praeter in te, Dues Israel

I have never put my hope in any other
But in You, O God of Israel.

On paper, the first two lines of Thomas Tallis’s motet, composed in 1573, pack no special punch. Yet the effect of the words is rather different when the musical composition is played through forty speakers in Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet (2001), now at the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture. The speakers are set in the form of an oval with two benches at the center, where Tallis’s motet, as recorded by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, plays on a fourteen-minute loop.

Most listeners followed one of two paths: starting in the center and spiraling out, or beginning next to one speaker and slowly spiraling their way in. The audience is allowed the opportunity to hear forty voices in unison, then they can walk a bit closer and listen to just twenty, then ten, then just five, until finally they usually end up in front of one speaker. I, too, often found myself chasing one particular voice, as if beckoned by a siren’s song. Yet seldom did I find the voice before the part was over.

The alternating voices give the piece a sense of movement and life, though the only movement is that of the spectators. Indeed, that’s one of the goals of the piece; Cardiff’s work allows viewers (or listeners? or audience members?) to go inside the motet and interact with it. Glancing at fellow listeners, at least half have closed their eyes. Some transformation has occurred, as many appear mesmerized, or in an ecstatic state.

Cardiff’s work allows for the contemporary reexamination of the Renaissance’s motet, but it is the location that makes the work even more poignant. The scenic view out of the window looks toward the East Harbor and, further out, the Golden Gate Bridge. For at least fourteen minutes, one’s ears and eyes are so thoroughly occupied that it is difficult to think of anything else but the music and the view. Audience members can discover the power of an impeccably composed piece of religious choral music in a modern, secular context, one that is as close to transcendental as any in San Francisco.

Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet is on view at Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture through January 18, 2016. 

 

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Henry Rittenberg is a recent graduate of Hamilton College, where he studied art history. He is now studying photography in New York.

 

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