Sound Ideas

Janet Cardiff at the Hirshhorn, working on her audio installation:
Janet Cardiff at the Hirshhorn, working on her audio installation: "Connecting from one time to another, and from one person to another." (By Chris Smith -- Smithsonian Institution)
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 4, 2005

Imagine you had invented oil painting, from scratch -- and then the first pictures you made turned out kind of hit-or-miss. After all, as a pioneer, you'd have no one else's successes, or mistakes, to work from. It could take a while -- even a whole career -- before you fully got the knack of your invention.

That's seems to be the predicament facing Janet Cardiff, a Canadian artist who's lately been working mostly from Berlin.

For more than 10 years, Cardiff has been acclaimed for working out an art form with few precedents. She has her audience put on headphones, then guides a walk through the real world. An audio track provides convincing sound effects, contemplative ruminations and bits of fantastical storytelling that mix with the actual noises the listeners hear around them. Imagine an old-fashioned Acoustiguide, but with an experimental artist in control and a big chunk of the world as the exhibition to be annotated.

Cardiff's latest art walk, "Words Drawn in Water," commissioned by the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, was launched there yesterday.

Your first contact with Cardiff's work comes at a kiosk in the Hirshhorn lobby, where you surrender a credit card or photo ID and claim a tiny iPod music player and pair of headphones (the players were a gift from Apple). Then you sit on a bench by the lobby's rear doors and wait in silence for your ride to begin.

The sound of a bass voice singing "Ol' Man River" gets things started, mixing with the lobby's other noises, which the earpieces don't keep out. The tune fades, and a throaty woman's voice -- it's the artist's, but she sounds like a torch singer -- starts to speak to you.

Cardiff muses about a series of paintings of the river Thames, painted in the 1870s by James McNeill Whistler. She contemplates the fact that a drop of flowing water once seen by Whistler could now be running through the fountain in the Hirshhorn's courtyard, or could be in that apple that you'll eat next year. Thoughts and memories, she says, can be like that, "connecting from one time to another, and from one person to another."

Hence the snippet of "Ol' Man River," which Cardiff now explains reminds her of her mother, who heard and met Paul Robeson as a little girl and counts him as her hero. A song about a river becomes a drop in the bucket of memory, flowing from Cardiff's mom, through her to us.

But that's enough sitting in a museum. Cardiff's work is about getting beyond such traditional art spaces. Cardiff's tone shifts from a poetic lilt to a businesslike clip, and the voice in your ears tells you to get up, walk through the Hirshhorn doors and out into the fountain courtyard.

Things look normal enough, but the sounds you hear tell a different story. That voice, poetical again, tells you there are people watching from the windows up above, and you hear them clapping and whooping as you walk by -- though there's no sign of them if you glance up.

Cardiff and her husband, George Bures Miller -- an artist who sometimes co-authors works with her, and almost always helps with technical details -- have developed stunning tricks for recording sounds that seem absolutely present when played back through headphones. If trompe-l'oeil pictures fool your eyes into seeing painted things as real, this sound art is trompe l' ear .

As instructed by Cardiff -- now back to her sober, how-to voice -- you head out of the courtyard, toward the open spaces of the Mall and the Hirshhorn's sculpture garden. According to your ears, at least, a helicopter passes overhead, and Cardiff's voice, again in full melodrama mode, whispers: "I think they're tracking me," only to then downplay that idea as a figment of her own imagination, brought on by paranoia bred of her visit to Washington.

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