Janet Cardiff at Whitechapel Library, London (1999)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 15 September 2009
This review first appeared in World Sculpture News, 5(4), pp. 73-4 in 1999.

Janet Cardiff at Whitechapel Library, London

Canadian artist Janet Cardiff says on her “audio walk”, “I started these recordings as a way to remember— to make like seem more real. Then the voice became someone else— a separate person hovering in front of me like a ghost.” Entitled The Missing Voice (Case Study B) (1999), Cardiff combines sound and the viewer’s visual experience in an “audio walk” which layers and juxtaposes a variety of narratives to create a unique artistic and experimental event.

[Organized by Artangel] and originating at the Whitechapel Library, viewers strapped on headphones, turned on portables Discmans and were directed by library staff to stand atop a giant “X”. Positioned in front of the Library’s mystery section— Janet Cardiff begins 50 minutes of instructions and narratives, and the approach was brilliant. With recorded background sounds from the Library, she instructs us to read a passage out of a Reginald Hill mystery (which she reads aloud). Then the mystery becomes a layer in our experience. We are instructed to follow someone—in her time and space (which we cannot see).

The “tour” takes us through the Library, and out onto the street— “Past Kentucky Fried Chicken”— past a pub reputed to have housed a Jack the Ripper suspect, and onto Brick Lane amidst sounds of a festival, and through the streets of London. Throughout this, we experience fragments of Janet Cardiff’s narratives— partly fact, partly fiction— which are layered and juxtaposed by our experiences on the walk. The artwork ends with the viewer overlooking the crowd at Liverpool Station, where the multitude of criss-crossing and clashing narratives significantly increases. The tension between her experience and the viewer’s can be intense—on the edges, you either submit like an automaton, or fight against it.

The connections and disconnections challenge, and at times, overload visual experience and associations. In fact, the tour passes directly over the site of a vicious nail bomb attack at the center of the Bangladeshi community earlier this year. This was intensely juxtaposed against Janet Cardiff’s sounds of a festival. While navigating the complex experience, it can be difficult to concentrate on Cardiff’s audio, which is probably intended, as it creates yet another layer of disconnection. Unfortunately, by using a Discman, it was difficult to rewind and fast-forward efficiently, when a cassette tape would have been easier to use. While 50 minutes might seem lengthy for some, I enjoyed the twists and turns of narratives and layered experiences, and they encouraged Cardiff-esque investigations.