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For the first time in its history, the Cloisters is exhibiting a work of contemporary art. Janet Cardiff’s “The Forty Part Motet” is resonating in a 12th century Spanish chapel constructed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval branch, which also marks the first exclusively sound art work exhibited by the Met.
“The Forty Part Motet,” an 11-minute long recording of the Tudor composer Thomas Tallis’ 40-part choral piece “Spem in alium” from 1570, has been exhibited in New York before — at MoMA PS1 — and all over the world for that matter, so it’s likely if you seek out the installation at the Cloisters you may have been immersed in it already. Earlier this year as part of the exhibition Lost in the Memory Palace at The Art Gallery of Ontario, the piece was one of seven experiences by Cardiff with her husband George Bures Miller. While some of these had constructed rooms to set a certain tone, “The Forty Part Motet” was installed in a standard museum gallery, yet, like in previous iterations, that seemed to in no way undermine the transcendence of the sound installation. Sarah Zabrodski wrote this for Hyperallergic:
“At the risk of breaching the unspoken protocol of professional artspeak; I have never had such a visceral reaction to a work of art, contemporary or otherwise. ‘The Forty Part Motet’ gives me goose bumps.”
Since the piece debuted in 2001, the general response has been one of awe with the ethereal beauty of how the voices can be experienced separately as you walk through the ring of speakers, each holding a voice, or commune in the center and let the Latin harmonies flow over you from all sides. However, the installation at the Cloisters has a uniqueness to it with its setting. “The Forty Part Motet” has been installed in spaces with tones of the spiritual before, such as the Rideau Chapel at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Johanniterkirche Feldkirch in Austria. Still, there’s something about not just having the Fuentidueña Chapel in the Cloisters where it’s installed to respond to, but the whole array of medieval art and architecture throughout the museum. The Fuentidueña Chapel, an ongoing loan to the museum from Spain, was brought over in pieces and its limestone bricks reconstructed with a stunning 12th century crucifix suspended from the apse. And throughout the Cloisters are these reconstructions, where a history that took place long before the European settlement history of Manhattan around the museum is meticulously transported.
I felt that in the Cloisters, “The Forty Part Motet” had a direct dialogue with this reconstruction of a past. I’d experienced the sound installation at MoMA PS1, but while there is no denying that the music by Tallis is gorgeous (a choral singer friend told me she couldn’t help but cry every time she’s sang it), it was hard to really be taken away into it without closing my eyes.
There is something oddly human about the assembled speakers, where you can crane your ear towards any of the 40 and feel a very personable presence from the individual voice in a way you never could in a concert experience. Cardiff achieved a similar feeling with The Murder of Crows last year at the Park Avenue Armory, where the first time I walked into the vast space with its speakers mingled on the chairs among a packed opening night crowd, I was startled by the sudden singing and for a brief moment felt that there really were vocalists planted in the audience, until I saw the sonorous tones came from a stout black box.
In a way, the speakers are a little like the tomb effigies of knights and ladies held in another chapel space of the Cloisters, containing something of the person who lived as a memorial, yet being an object that also has nothing to do with the person except in memory. The speakers also capture a brief 11 minutes of each of the Salisbury Cathedral Choir member’s voices, and the alien form of the speakers is then both part of them and at the same time completely suspended from them as its own memory.
However, despite the intimate setting of the Cloisters chapel, where the sandy-hued bricks and religious art instantly instilled a quiet contemplation, most people seemed to prefer to experience “The Forty Part Motet” with their eyes closed. Few even walked around while I was there, instead selecting a space at the center or a place by a lone speaker and then closing themselves into their own world with the music. Nevertheless, even with eyes shut, there is still the transporting experience of the Cloisters around you, so that when you open your eyes you’re not just suddenly pulled out of this meditation into a white museum gallery where you will wander next to art that may have very little to do with the sound installation, but instead move to another work that has that same reverential history.
The exhibition of “The Forty Part Motet” is part of the Cloister’s 75th anniversary celebrations, and while it is a harmonious choice for a first invitation of contemporary art into the abbey-like museum, there is room for even more mixing of time and experience in the space. There is, after all, so much history gathered there.
Janet Cardiff: The Forty Part Motet is at the Cloisters (Fort Tryon Park, Manhattan) through December 8.