When Janet Cardiff released our emotions

It marked the spirits for the first time, long ago. You may have missed it, here it is (again) on a wall, on the floor, elsewhere. A historical work and, behind it, an artist. For this fourth part of a series of interviews around outstanding works, we are interested in Forty-part motet with Janet Cardiff.

They are not very photogenic, but its forty speakers rarely go unnoticed, leaving no one indifferent. Since twenty years, Forty-part motet (a voice over loudspeaker) is heard everywhere. In the fall, it reappeared a second time in Montreal – the third only in Quebec, after 2002 and 2003.

Considered by many to be Janet Cardiff’s masterpiece, this sound and anthropomorphic installation concludes, as a real collective highlight, the exhibition How long does it take for one voice to reach the other?, ongoing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) until February.

Forty-part motet (2001) — Forty-Part Motet, in its original title – uses a polyphonic composition of the XVIe century, Hope in another, by Thomas Tallis, and explores the sculptural potential of music.

The exercise is so successful, and with great emotional significance, that the artist received the Millennium Prize twenty years ago and its $ 50,000, offered by the National Gallery of Canada (NGC). – the one in Ottawa.

What year ! It was also in 2001 that the artist occupied the Canadian pavilion at the Venice Biennale and won a special jury prize with The Paradise Institute, an immersive installation in the form of a cinema hailed by international critics.

“I do not consider [Motet à quarante voix] like my best work, says Janet Cardiff. The music is by Thomas Tallin. The interview by videoconference takes place on this impetus of modesty. Generous and laughing, the artist refuses all the credit for this motet sung by the Salisbury Cathedral Choir, a famous English choir, and recorded with forty microphones. She admits having achieved her goals… thanks to her accomplice and life partner, George Bures Miller, with whom she co-signs most of her works.

“I wanted,” she said, “for the viewer, or listener, to be able, with their inner eye, to follow the sound that moves through the room. I wanted his body to feel that way. “

Born in 1957 in Brussels, Ontario, Janet Cardiff first became known in the 1990s for her Walks, works often only sound that one discovered while walking, headphones on the head. The day she heard Tallis’ contrapuntal music, she began to dream of an all-encompassing work, in the spirit of multichannel sound (surround) that was beginning to emerge.

“Listening is a complex art, and I learned with Motet than the room [d’exposition] is one of the instruments ”, recognizes the one who loves the moment when the installation comes back to life in a church.

I wanted the viewer, or listener, to be able, with their inner eye, to follow the sound that moves in the room. I wanted his body to feel that way.

It is the richness of the reverberation coming from stone or wooden walls that she seeks, more than an echo of the sacred text of the song. It is also in the Rideau Chapel of the NGC that Forty-part motet was born and it is in this building integrated into contemporary art galleries that the work can be experienced almost permanently for several years.

The euphoria of existing

Chantal Pontbriand was part of the jury that awarded the Millennium Prize to Janet Cardiff, to the detriment of nine other artists, including Geneviève Cadieux, Jeff Wall and Jana Sterbak. The former director of the journal Parachute qualified Forty-part motet bewitching and unifying work. “The sound produced by the device makes the air vibrate and penetrates the body. We are dealing with an “increased” presence, an increased and euphoric feeling of being there, of existing ”, she comments, at our request.

In her opinion, Janet Cardiff is part of a Canadian tradition that includes Michael Snow, Murray Schafer and Raymond Gervais – Chantal Pontbriand’s own companion. Like them, Cardiff exploits the multiplicity of voices to promote “the idea of ​​meeting, the instinctive movement to reach out to others, to be together”.

Forty-part motet is emblematic, she emphasizes, of “globalization and technologisation ” From our era.

The installation is also emblematic of the exhibition How much time does it take…, An invitation from the MMFA to listen to others, especially in a context of social distancing. Janet Cardiff had not made the trip to Montreal when she was joined at her residence in British Columbia, but she imagined all the good her work could bring.

“You stand near a loudspeaker, not afraid of getting close to someone, without worrying that their breath will make you sick,” she said. You can wear a mask and allow yourself to relax, freely. And cry. People really cry. “

The emotional impact of the work, which has always been notorious, is increased tenfold, as when it was exhibited in New York, a month after the attacks of September 11, 2001. It is however due to nature from Motet enough to move that Janet Cardiff did not see herself winning the $ 50,000 put into play by the NGC. Caroline Barrière, journalist for Right which covered the event, had noted the astonishment of the artist.

” She [précise] that works that call for emotion and beauty do not necessarily have the approval of international juries, ”she wrote on March 8, 2001.

“Being moved in contemporary art is now possible, thanks to feminists,” believes Janet Cardiff, “without wanting to take any responsibility for it. Works that were too dramatic, too emotional, were frowned upon. Today, critics appreciate them. “

Forty-part motet may have opened up aesthetic gaps, but it has remained without a successor in the prize list of a prize which will become the Turner Prize of Canada. The initiative of Pierre Théberge, director at the time of the NGC, ended to the chagrin of Janet Cardiff, supporter of the artistic prizes. “Some of the money may be used to buy champagne, but most of it goes back into the system, is used to hire employees, to invest in equipment,” she says.

How long does it take for one voice to reach the other?

At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, until February 13. The work Forty-part motet is also on display at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

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