I haven’t posted here since mid-September; it’s now November. I have a couple
of excuses (I got married, had a honeymoon, am moving house, have been posting
at MemeFirst), but it’s still a very poor show. Maybe all the goings-on in my
real-world life have rid me of the need to get minor issues off my chest at
great length. We shall see. As the number of blogs explodes along with the number
of people who use RSS readers, we’re increasingly living in a world where infrequent
posts of decent quality are to be preferred to mediocre new entries coming along
on a daily or even hourly basis. So I’m not feeling particularly guilty.
All the same, it’s worth posting something, if only to prove to myself that
I’m still alive and capable of writing one of these things. And one of the things
which has been on my mind over the past few days is The Forty-Part Motet,
a work of art that has recently been installed at MoMA. Todd Gibson has already
about it at length, and he’s mostly right.
I saw the piece last week, on a trip to MoMA with my wife. (Yes, it still feels
very weird saying that.) When we were sitting in the café talking about
what we’d seen, there was a bit of confusion: I kept on saying that I loved
"the Tallis piece", and while Michelle couldn’t remember the name
of the person responsible for the installation she really loved, she knew that
it wasn’t Tallis, and, moreover, that it was a woman. The name she was searching
for, of course, was Janet Cardiff, and she was talking about the exact same
Questions of authorship rarely arise in a fine-art context, except in cases
of forgery or attribution. It’s generally accepted that someone is
the artist, who should get any credit due. Artists have played with this notion,
of course, and many, from Old Masters to the likes of Warhol and LeWitt and
Koons and Hirst, use assistants extensively. But you don’t get the kind of debates
in the fine art world that you do in other arenas: is True Romance
a Tony Scott film or a Quentin Tarantino film? Whose Hamlet did you
see? That of the actor in the eponymous role? The director? Shakespeare? Why
is it that the authors of operas are generally considered to be the composers,
while the authors of ballets are generally considered to be the choreographers?
You get the picture.
In the case of The Forty-Part Motet, however, authorship is very difficult
to attribute. MoMA doesn’t seem to have any doubt: the artist is Janet Cardiff,
who was assisted by a large number of people, and who recorded a 16th Century
choral work by Thomas Tallis. Todd Gibson, on the other hand, apportions credit
The Forty-Part Motet takes all of its emotional punch from the choir’s
performance of Tallis’s piece.. In her piece Cardiff has harnessed the power
of a live performance by using the skills of a master recording technician…
Unlike her other work where she creates original sound environments, here
Cardiff has recreated a sound environment originally developed over 400 years
ago. Filtered through Cardiff’s technology, the music sounds good enough to
make listeners choke up.
I would go even further. Cardiff has created a nice-looking space, with an
oval of 40 speakers, but that is really no big deal. Her recording technicians
did a good job, too, but then again recording technology has been sophisticated
enough to create a piece like this for a very long time. I don’t consider this
a Tallis piece "filtered through Cardiff’s technology", because the
technology is pretty commoditised at this point, and there’s really nothing
to indicate that Cardiff deserves the possessive.
In other words, the work, as experienced, is Tallis’s, not Cardiff’s. It’s
a work of art which actually gets better when you close your eyes. Insofar as
this is "one of the most sublimely beautiful spaces in Midtown Manhattan,"
to quote Gibson, that’s because of the music, foremost, and perhaps the view
out the window.
Tallis is something of an expert when it comes to the sublime, of course. And
it’s a testament to the power of his music that it can transform a modernist
white box into something both transcendent and devotional. But neither Cardiff
nor MoMA is making it particularly easy on him.
I would dearly love to own this piece – to have a room devoted to it,
where I could listen to it whenever I liked. I could sit still, or walk around,
as I slowly got to know every part and how they fit together. But the piece
in MoMA isn’t like that. People are constantly walking in and out – chances
are it was halfways over before you even entered the room.
But it gets worse. 99% of the people who walk into the room have little if
any idea what it’s all about. They’re in one of the greatest art galleries in
the world, and they have come to look at art and to understand it. So they walk
into the room, which has music, like a lot of contemporary art, and they slowly
get it. First they get the structure: the way that each speaker corresponds
to one singer. Then they get the overarching beauty of the music. And they realise
how great the piece is, and get excited about it.
The problem, of course, is that people don’t visit MoMA alone. They visit with
their friends. And so whenever they get excited about a piece, they feel the
need to tell their friends. Now I’ve been to a fair few Tallis performances
in my time, but I’ve never been to anything with half as much chattering. At
the end of our trip on Friday, Michelle went to the bookshop while I returned
to the Tallis piece. I sat down, and within a minute a large earth-mother type
was bustling in, telling her friend all about the work and how much she loved
it. I shot her a nasty look, but it didn’t do any good. She sat down next to
me, and started rustling around in her plastic bag for whatever items she needed
to listen to the music. Meanwhile, a bunch of other people were talking quietly
about the work as well. I soon found myself essentially incapable of enjoying
Tallis is a subtle composer. The voices work with and against each other in
complex ways, and a few words stand out because of their plosive or sibilant
endings. Listening to Spem in alium, especially a recording as richly
detailed as this one, you become attuned to very subtle textures in the music
– you become a much more active listener than you ever would be normally
in an art gallery. And so all of the chatter and noise in the gallery really
gets in the way and ruins the piece. There might be a debate going on about
but no one would debate the proposition that one simply shouldn’t start
up a conversation in the middle of a devotional choral piece by Thomas
Tallis. And yet that’s exactly what happens all day at MoMA.
There are things which MoMA could have done to minimise the problem, and didn’t.
There are things they couldn’t have done, too: I think that ideally, if this
work is to be presented to the public, it might be better placed in a performing
arts center, like Lincoln Center, where there is more of a culture of appreciating
aural as opposed to visual art. But still:
MoMA could have hidden the piece away somewhere, signposted, as a special installation
deserving of special attention. At the moment, it’s just another piece in the
contemporary rehang: you pass it on your way from the Nauman to the Turrell,
and so it’s easier for the public to give it the kind of (noisy) attention that
they give to everything else.
More subtly, and more easily, MoMA could have just dimmed the lights a bit.
I’m not saying that the audience should sit in darkness: the visual structure
is striking, and the window can and should remain uncovered. But simply making
the gallery dimmer than the rest of the museum would help to signal to viewers
that this is not a primarily visual piece, and that they should slow down and
quiet down a bit.
MoMA could even have simply put a sign up, saying "silence please"
or words to that effect. They’re happy with "do not touch" signs –
does speaking in The Forty-Part Motet not ruin it just as much as touching,
say, a Serra?
Cardiff should be overjoyed that this work is on display at MoMA: there’s a
good chance that more people will experience it over the next year than have
seen or heard all her other works put together. She should go down to 53rd Street
and talk to a couple of people, and try to make the experience as close to what
she intended as possible. And that means changing the work a little in the face
of new realities: MoMA is simply a very different gallery to PS1. What worked
in the latter might not work in the former, and there’s no harm – and
quite a lot of benefit – in taking that into account when the piece moves
across the East River to Manhattan.