WILLIAMSTOWN — What does a perfect work of art look like? It depends whom you ask. The best art says different things to different people, and leaves room for the viewer to inhabit it in a way all their own. But an installation at the Clark Art Institute gives me the chance to make a public nomination: It’s called “The Forty Part Motet,” by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, and on first glance it doesn’t look like much. In a glass-walled room flooded with natural light, 40 boxy black speakers stand in a broad circle, each head-height on a slim metal stand.
They’re identical; the space feels empty, spare, incomplete. But that’s the bait, set to hook. What rises from this chilly scene is a sound so beautiful it feels almost holy, a faceless chorus of angels reaching toward the divine.
The raw material of “The Forty Part Motet” is “Spem in Alium,” a choral piece arranged in 40 parts by the 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis. To make it, Cardiff recorded each vocal individually and channeled it through a speaker of its own. The disconnect is striking: An array of cold machines, channeling human expression with unsettling clarity and emotion.
As you move through the room, the piece shifts and changes. Stand in the middle and you’ll be buffeted by rich vocal harmony spilling forth in waves from the blank sentinels that surround you. Walk speaker to speaker and the piece changes: You’ll hear baritones and sopranos contributing their part and then falling silent, or some vocalists waiting for their parts, quietly clearing throats or wetting lips in preparation.
The experience is almost uncomfortably intimate and chillingly removed at the same time. Made in 2000, I always liked to think of “The Forty Part Motet” as a meditation on both the vast potential of technology and its very real limits. The machines here capture and broadcast human expression perfectly, a marvel. At the same time, you can’t help but be aware of the extreme degree of mediation, with the emotional richness of each voice locked inside a black box.
That tension is just as affecting as the undeniable beauty that fills the room; the space is austere, almost empty, and brimming with richness all at once. This is part of its power: The piece has a way of remaking almost every space it occupies, owning it by the sparest of means.
That’s less true, I think, in its permanent home in the Rideau Chapel at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. It’s an extraordinary space — built in the late 19th century, the Gothic-revival building was dismantled and rebuilt inside the gallery in 1972. But over time, I’ve come to think of it as too leading and maybe a little one-note. With its intricate ceilings and crosses all around, it prompts reverence of a certain kind, and maybe too few questions.
It’s been a good thing that “The Forty Part Motet” has been a smash-hit almost since the day it was made, making its travel schedule fully-booked year to year (less good for Ottawa, which often has the piece for less than half the year). It’s allowed the piece to work its particular magic in a breadth of contexts, infusing it with freshness and new life almost everywhere it’s been.
Some works achieve greatness, to borrow a phrase, while others have greatness thrust upon them. So it was with “The Forty Part Motet,” installed at MoMA’s P.S. 1 in 2001 in the weeks before the devastating attacks of 9/11. There, the piece performed a duty its maker never imagined: As a pilgrimage site of collective solace, and a refuge in which to share a communal grief. On the 10th anniversary of the attacks in 2011, P.S. 1 welcomed it back; wounds scarred over, it returned as an old friend.
The work has been shown dozens of times since, in just as many locations. But it, like any of us, carries its history forward. As it remakes each place it visits, so too is it remade, leaving that critical experiential space to constantly evolve and grow. It’s beautiful; that much you’ll know with the first breath of a note. But its beauty is also in its renewal — what it brings to a place, and what its audience brings to it. For all its sparsity of form, it near breathes like a living thing.
At The Clark, with the sunlight bouncing in from the reflecting pond just outside, you could see wind licking at the greenery, thick forests climbing the edge of a grassy incline up the slope of a gentle Berkshire mountain. Here, amid the soft glow of nature, its enveloping harmonies made for solace and sorrow both — for a world on the edge of every imaginable disaster, but still capable of beauty despite it. In these darkening times, it still felt like hope.
JANET CARDIFF: THE FORTY PART MOTET Through Sept. 15. At the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu