Sunday 31 July 2011


...all, as you might expect, part of the Brighton Festival

The Forty Part Motet (by Janet Cardiff and Thomas Tallis)

Just think. All those camera phones and no pictures to take...

’Spem in Alium’, a renaissance choral work by Thomas Tallis, was turned into a “sound installation” by Janet Cardiff. Its forty voices were represented by a ring of forty speakers - each speaker effectively personalised, transmitting the sound of one voice only. (Is there an equivalent term to stereo for forty?) A widespread response was to praise Tallis’ piece, while relegating Cardiff to little more than his DJ. Of course Tallis’ exquisite music has no small part to play. But ever the contrarian, I’m going to suggest the opposite - that Cardiff’s contribution was bravely understated but actually added an important dimension.

One iteration of the music ended almost as soon as I arrived, with a short wait before the next. Impatient as ever, I found myself irked – surely it could be continuously looped?

But when it did start up, reasons became clear. First individual voices arose, from scattered points in the room, building slowly but inexorably to a resounding whole. In Cardiff’s own words, you felt yourself  “experience the overwhelming feeling as the sound waves hit you.”

Cardiff has also claimed the installation “allows us to wander freely as if in the presence of live performers.” However, I noted most attendees’ behaviour mimicked my own – upon arriving they’d circulate the room, checking out how the sound was constructed, then head to the middle to take it all in.

Partly you trusted to the sound design you were given, the same way you wouldn’t watch a film in a random order or try to stand behind a theatre troupe. But more importantly the removal of the singers, the reduction of everything to sound emphasised the religiosity of the music – the sense of God as a spirit, not physical entity. Those high-register ‘choir boy’ voices were, after all, originally used for their bodiless quality. Christians associate God with sound and light, the voice whisperings in the ear, not the flash and thunder of manifestation. In his time, Tallis was stuck with having his choir present. Later, recorded music was developed at a get-around for the live band not having to be present. But here only having the voices is an enhancement to the piece.

There’s also an interesting spatial reversal. The audience is in the centre, the speakers arranged around us. This is not the way we arrange concert halls but the private space of our homes. A poster advertised a solo experience of the installation for a not-so-small fee. Well whatever gets the venue through these recessionated times. But it seemed vital to me that the experience was both disembodied and collective. Like me, numerous people stayed for several iterations of the music. No-one spoke to each other during that time, yet it felt important the others were sharing the experience. We were virtually a congregation!

It’s not quite true that there was no visual element. The gallery Fabrica was originally a Church, and has retained many of its trappings. At other times this has annoyed me. Art galleries are too near to being modern Churches as it is, loftily expecting deference to their great mysteries, plus their associated cut of tithe money. (I have at times seen some infuriatingly self-important shows at Fabrica!) Here for once it was all to the good...

Religion may well be the greatest popular turn-off theme in art – stirring up a resistible combination of  ‘bad’ and ‘dull’ in people’s minds. And Christianity may well have the worst reputation of all religions. Islam and Hinduism at least feel exotic, Christianity is just the dreary platitudes of school assemblies. We can regard the subject as spent out, juiceless.

I am not at all religious, yet surely one of the main purposes of art is to convey feelings that aren’t naturally your own. This surely evoked a genuine sense of how it must feel to be a Christian, to be connected to a beautific yet powerful force, invisible to others. And it achieved this by offering you an experience, precisely not by prosletysing or polemicising.

Of course, it’s equally possible that, rather than responding to anything, I am merely imposing my own reading. To me the religious sense that there is more to life than the narrow, conscious self is in itself correct. (Religion would scarcely have persisted in history the way it has if it was nothing but a con trick.) But religion then projects that insight - outside of the self, onto a fetishised other. Which is where I part company. That thing that’s bigger than you and me – to me, it’s us. So when you take almost all the visual out of an art exhibition, I do not look up to God but out at the crowd.

Below, the installation in a bigger, sparser space in Venice. (You can also hear Tallis’ entire piece here.)

Mesopotamian Dramaturgies (by Kutling Ataman)
The Old Market, Brighton

In a sense this installation has something in common with Cardiff's. Both are dependant works, framing devices, taking something previously existent and making their contribution the way they present it. Yet ironically it was this and not the actually religious work which I found ‘Churchy’ in all the wrong ways – grand and emptily ostentatious.

It consists of two banks of video screens, one (called ‘Su’, Turkish for water) showing flat and twinkling seascapes and the other (‘Mayhem’) gushing waterfalls. The first has been cut into slices, or otherwise played around with. As these gimmicks added little, the second worked better. But in another irony, beneath all the techno-paraphernalia of the video projections, it’s like the Modernist rejoinder to traditional landscape painting. Why not just go and look at the landscape? We are, after all, in a space less than five minutes away from the sea.

The publicity and title seemed to pitch something dramatising the recent Arab Spring, but based in the traditions of Arabic and Ottoman art. But if the video screens were shorn of this baggage, there is simply no way you would make those connections. When there is social upset, politicians and would-be politicians perpetually see chances to reposition themselves – it’s only to be expected. Careerist artists, alas, can often try the same. A giant piece of pitta dipping in a huge pot of hummous might serve this theme better; absurd and patronising that might be, but at least something with an actual association to the Arab world.

(It may be that I took more against these pseudo-associations more than the work itself. Without them I may have found it a lacking in substance, but a pleasant enough diversion for a Saturday afternoon.)

The blurb suggests Ataman is interested in capturing water's untramelled, free-flowing quality. The idea is not necessarily a bad one. Water is of course a potent image, which has been used by radical political groups in the past. The ambient dubstep artist Burial has commented that he found his music merely programmed until he started incorporating natural elements, like the patter of rain. Yet everything here is in that word ‘capturing.’ Ataman isn’t using water to any purpose, or articulating his own response to it. He’s just trying to borrow its elemental power, and it’s slipping through his fingers...

I read afterwards that Ataman has been shortlisted for the next Turner Prize. I can’t claim to be surprised...

Evolution of Fearlessness (by Lynette Wallworth)

If ‘Mesopotamian Dramaturgies’ was formally similar to ‘Forty Part Motet’, this installation was a complete contrast – not about light and the collective experience, but almost existentially individualised. And if ‘Mesopotmian Dramaturgies’ foregrounded technology in something of a paraded way, this was much more nuanced and considered.

A large video-screen dominates a darkened room, with a platform before it. If you step on the platform and press your hand to the screen, a silhouette slowly grows into a life-size figure. She matches your gesture and meets your gaze, only to receed into the dark again. The figures vary, and you find yourself trying to glean clues from their dress and appearance. But they all have a look of sad reflection.

Of course it’s a technological art installation about the limits of art and technology. It simulates a one-on-one encounter, only to emphasise that simulation. It enhances our experience of watching the TV news and it’s passing clips – an inadequate approximation of meeting people, or getting to know their story.

Under a reading light, a folder gives more of their life stories – the old-fashioned media more illustrative than the flash of apparently interactive technology. As befits the Festival’s theme, they are all stories of exile or dispossession of some kind. I read this folder afterwards by sheer accident, but it seemed the best way to do it. My only criticism would be that the attendee should be more guided into this, perhaps by placing it behind the video screen.

(The gallery also showed another work by Wallworth, ‘Damavand Mountain’, but let’s quit while we’re ahead...)

PostScript: Patient readers may be reassured to hear that we are finally finished with a Festival that ended in May! Please stay tuned for only-slightly-less-late stuff... 

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