Reflections on Janet Cardiff installation at Richmond Chapel, Penzance

Susi Gutiérrez, visual artist volunteering for Groundwork  in Penzance

I believe that most buildings have something to say to us if we listen carefully. The Richmond Chapel has been housing from 25 May, Janet Cardiff’s sound installation Forty Part Motet receiving visitors from all over, locals familiar with the chapel and others acquainted with Groundwork. For this installation members of Salisbury Cathedral Choir were recorded singing an arrangement of the 1556 choral work Spem in Alium Nunquam Habui by Thomas Tallis.


The first time I came into the chapel, an absolutely invisible choir was playing through forty speakers. I did not read a lot about Janet Cardiff before I started invigilating. I went in and walked around the speakers, and as the day went on I discovered more and more through my journeys around and  inside the building including the narthex or lobby area, the wall marks, pews, vestibule and dusty surroundings. The sound installation, (which consists in forty separately recorded voices played through forty speakers), became alive within the almost derelict building. Every time one goes outside to refresh the ears from the sound, the music still resonates within the ear labyrinth. It also has an influence within your actions as I realised that my natural way of moving changed. I was walking around differently feeling subdued and immersed in my own thoughts. The building provides an excellent acoustic for the choral work, and the fact that the audience is encouraged to follow a silence rule, make people to sit or to walk quietly. When the piece finishes, the singers take a break (when recording, Janet Cardiff and editor decided to keep recording the singer’s chats) and I joined them trying to find out what were they saying. Standing close to the speakers it is possible almost to have a chat with the singers, to let them know my own secrets and I realised how important is this moment for the visitors. Not all of them but most, especially children have been listening close which is something that otherwise in everyday life nobody dares to do. Listening to other people conversations is in some way impolite but here one is allowed! Invigilating the chapel as an outsider made me realise that I am not one. All of a sudden, anyone can be part of the choir, in silence one can start remembering the unutterable. Existence of ghosts and spirits cannot be proved by science but it does not matter, while listening to the concert, it is possible to re-visit places and to dream of creating an intimate, direct connection with the singers.


Chapel Ghosts‘Chapel Ghosts’

I have been drawing inside the chapel. Corners, windows, lines and also just after volunteering I started painting in a different way.

A Comment from a visitor I approached:
I was very sceptical about this installation before I arrived. I am a sceptical person by
nature. But the empty, neglected venue is perfect for this. The lack of furniture and
ornamentation gives amazing acoustics and there is little to distract your attention. I sat
in the middle of the speakers for a while and then found that by wandering closer to the
speakers I could clearly hear the individual voices. And then it stopped and the best bit
was the chatter amongst the choristers. I was not expecting that. Like when you overhear
snatches of conversations on the bus, except here you don’t have to pretend not to listen.
Finally the singing began again and I could recommence my stroll amongst the singers. You can’t do that with a real life choir.

Cat outside Richmond Ch‘A cat outside Richmond Chapel’

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