New York

Janet Cardiff

Works of visual art that rely on sound, site-specific projects that induce an overwhelming sense of physical dislocation, Janet Cardiff’s audio walks chart a terrain that can only be described as interstitial. Visitors to her midcareer survey who pick up a portable CD player and go on the walk created specially for the exhibition are immediately alerted to this fact. The piece begins at a window that affords a breathtaking vista of the Manhattan skyline. “The city looks like a movie set today,” the artist murmurs into your ear, “and the people walking around are like extras.” The blurred line between fact and fiction in our image-saturated age is hardly a novel topic. But Cardiff’s ingenious appropriation of the museum Acoustiguide format renders it newly resonant. Though P.S. 1’s presentation tends to exaggerate the flaws in Cardiff’s project, the exhibition, which includes a pair of single-channel videos, documentation of six walks, and four installations (two featuring miniature peep show-style theaters were created with her longtime partner George Bures Miller), provides the opportunity for a reassessment of her practice. Usually discussed in terms of post-’60s site-specific installation and postmodern media hybridization, her work, it turns out, is also profoundly indebted—for better and for worse—to Surrealism.

Cardiff’s walks got their start a decade ago when the artist inadvertently turned on her tape recorder while wandering through a cemetery. Listening later to her own voice recite the names and dates on the tombstones, she suddenly found herself reimmersed in her prior encounter with the site. Her subsequent walks trace this same path, which also happens to traverse Surrealism’s principal domain: the experience of reality and identity as simultaneously doubled and split. (That the formative event occurred in a graveyard no doubt intensified Cardiff’s awareness of technology’s resurrection of time past, along with its power to render obsolete those it is intended to serve.) In a sense, the walks supplement Surrealism’s engagement with photography and film—its confrontation of the uncanny dimension of mechanical reproduction—with a post-’60s attentiveness to the embodiment of her spectators (achieved in part through the astonishingly realistic trompes d’oreilles Cardiff generates with binaural recording). The walks also serve as a reminder that Surrealism, at least in its literary guise, yielded a certain site-specificity avant la lettre. Indeed, how better to describe Nadja, Andre Breton’s Parisian dérive. both with and in search of his novel’s eponymous heroine, who, like Cardiff during her walks, holds the key to an oneiric substrate that lurks just beneath reality’s surface.

The dream space Cardiff invites visitors to enter is largely figured through classic tropes of science fiction and film noir—two narrative-driven genres that typically hinge on a well-defined hero engaged in a life-threatening mission. Her works hint at a quest (often involving a woman named Janet and her absent lover George) interspersed with observations, memories, and counternarratives. These fractured stories are clearly indebted to feminist film theory’s critique of narrative, which, like Cardiff’s project, explores the subject’s formation through the insertion of the “self” into an ongoing “life story.” Cardiff’s use of stock characters and situations (evil villain, femme fatale) further emphasizes the degree to which such private narratives rely on fantasies that are both intrinsically public and rigidly prescribed. This tension between submission and self-determination is echoed in the structure of the walks themselves, which involve complying with a set of commands issued by a voice that quite literally feels as if it were emanating from inside one’s own head. The voice (always the artist’s own) teases the listener through a series of near-miss encounters, repeatedly dangling and then withdrawing a fantasy of primal fusion—between self and other, body and machine, reality and its reproduction.

This maneuver, which employs seduction in the service of a subsequent critical estrangement, must strike a balance, between drawing visitors into a space of fantasy and spitting them back out. And this is where problems creep into Cardiff’s project—problems that are exacerbated by its presentation at P.S. I. Cardiff’s cinematic references are not only public (and therefore already known) but clearly retro. Ideally this outmoded quality would contribute to a desirable critical distance. But for this effect to succeed, periodic instances of disenchantment must remain embedded in an overall suspension of disbelief—something that simply does not happen here. To move from installation to installation one must pass through the neutral, almost clinical space of the museum’s main corridor. As a result, the spectator becomes too estranged. And the experience of sitting in a chair looking at photo-documentation and listening to the audio component of a walk is even more disaffecting. In both cases, Cardiff’s reliance on psychosexual cliches becomes overly apparent, dulling her work’s critical edge and accentuating its proximity to Surrealism’s kitschy underside. Not surprisingly, the piece that fares best at P.S. I is one that dispenses with cinematic reference altogether: Forty-Part Motet, 2001, a virtual performance by the Salisbury Cathedral choir of Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium nunquam habui (In no other is my hope). By recording the forty singers on separate tracks and playing them on forty speakers placed on six-foot-high stands in an oval formation, Cardiff achieves an eerily physical sensation of disembodied sound. Walking among the speakers, listening to the voices swell and overlap, one is transported to that intersection of unconscious fantasy and advanced technology first encountered by the Surrealists, where time-honored distinctions between here and there, self and other, reality and representation, no longer hold sway—a space we are still learning how to inhabit.

“Janet Cardiff,” on view at P.S.1 through January 31, travels to the Musée d’ Art Contemporain de Montréal, where it opens on May 24.

Margaret Sundell is a critic based in New York.