A Large Slow River


A Large Slow River


Audio walk

38 minutes

Curated by Marnie Fleming at Gairloch Gardens, Oakville Galleries. Ontario, Canada

Janet Cardiff

A Large Slow River has a beautiful site. It is set on Lake Ontario, with the waves hitting the rocks all day. Water was a major element in this walk. While working on the script, I was writing a fictional account of a man slipping at the top of a waterfall and falling to his death. I decided one Sunday while working on it that I needed to go to record the sound effects for the waterfall so we drove for over an hour to Waterton National Park in Alberta, just north of the Montana border. When we got to the small town where the waterfall was located, we decided to have lunch. Just as we were finishing lunch, I said to George that we had to get going, he had to hurry up. I was really impatient and intense. So we left the restaurant in a hurry and drove the two blocks to the waterfall. Just as we arrived at the site, 3 young people were walking slowly across the top of the 40-meter waterfall on a log that had become lodged above it. Everyone was watching this scene and thinking that the kids were crazy. It was a very dangerous thing to do. They all got across safely and the audience at the bottom was shaking their heads at the craziness of youth. I started to set up my recording gear in the van. As I was doing this, one kid who was still up above realized that he had made an impression on the audience below so he started dancing on the rocks at the top of the falls. Just as I was all set up and pressed the button to record I heard screams and yelling. I turned around to see that the boy had slipped off the rock and plunged the forty meters to the bottom. One of the strangest things is the way George looked at me at that moment and said ‘how did you know ?’ as if I had caused it. It took two teams of mountain climbers 3 days to get the boy’s body out from between the rocks where it had become stuck. No one had fallen or died at this waterfall since the late ’60s. I still wonder why it happened at that moment. I have a recording sitting on a shelf in my studio of the boy’s girlfriend crying, screaming crowds, men yelling instructions about getting ropes, and the sound of the sirens with the ambulance arriving. The crash of the waterfall is behind all of this like white noise. I never did use that part of the script or any of the recordings from that day.

sound of empty house, Janet saying ‘hello, hello’

Janet I wander through the house, looking in room after room. All there is is emptiness, plaster on the floor, broken windows.

Janet Hello. close up

George on voice recorder I hear her calling but I can’t seem to make a sound. Time moves around me like a large slow river.

sound of machine clicks

Janet It didn’t work. We’re back in the gallery. I have to try it again. Turn around, let’s go outside.

sound of crickets

Man VR It’s night. I’m walking by the pond. There’s a light on in the attic of the house. I can see it reflected in the water. Walk between the fenced area and the metal structure.

Janet Walk between the fenced area and the metal structure. The sun is coming out. Seagulls are perched on the walls.

Janet I’m going to sit down for a minute on the middle bench to the left. You can smell the lake now, that smell of fish and algae. Sit down.

Janet I’m at a beach on Lake Huron, my toes squishing into the mud, feeling them disappear deeper as each wave washes over them, jumping off my father’s wet shoulders into the water. Now I’m at another beach, it’s night, the sound of the waves coming in through the screen windows.

In 2000, Oakville Galleries commissioned Janet Cardiff to create an audio walk in Gairloch Gardens in Oakville, Canada. The walk, now a part of our permanent collection, takes place on an 11-acre estate on the edge of Lake Ontario. This idyllic park setting includes Gairloch Gallery, a rose garden, a couple of ponds – one with a wooden bridge – a swan pen, a sculpture garden, a teahouse, and stone breakwater along the waterfront. Geese, swans, ducks, children, dogs, seniors, tourists, and bridal parties are common sights.

The route begins in the gallery. Janet’s voice in the headset resounds: “Hello, hello […] all there is is emptiness, plaster on the floor, broken windows … ” We hear her thoughts as we are led out of the creaking gallery doors into the garden, and they become intermingled with a man’s tape-recorded voice recalling a wartime era. It is in this interchange that we find Janet circling around some of the same themes as in her previous walks – memories, displacement, and desire. Like a Beckett novel, her scripts have trouble with resolutions. Disconnected thoughts, sounds, conversations, and events are strung together in a sequence that suggests mystery; a world not empty of meaning, but, perhaps, too full of it. Sometimes we listen with great tenderness to the internal and external conversations of the two principal characters (Janet’s own voice and that of a man) and then are temporally dislocated again. Gairloch Gardens oscillates from being a gentle park to being a place that has the potential for tragedy. So, too, she frames analogies, overlaps subtexts, and employs multiple sounds: an organ grinder, opera singers, children’s voices, sirens, geese, buzzing flies, flying bullets, and helicopters. Often her characters leave their words hanging – weightless and somber, full of density and gravity. Janet, in effect, has created a virtual space anchored in reality.

Janet overlays her observations of time with the time we experience performing the audio walk. For example, in the CD she recalls a previous visit to the gardens and we hear her say, “[…] there were petunias and marigolds. Now it is just overturned dirt.” What we may in fact be seeing and experiencing at this juncture are daffodils, and, quite possibly, as the season unfolds, petunias and marigolds, and then perhaps dirt. We are made acutely aware of the transformative processes of real time.

The fluidity between the imaginary and the real finds a visual counterpart in the ebb and flow of water sounds and the artist’s unremitting reference to aqueous things: a beach, pond, creek, lake, mist, and rain. The flow of water – Janet’s spoken references and the actual sound of it – is used as a metaphor throughout and also assists in directing us to free-floating thoughts. The sound of waves seems to wash through us and act as a trigger for memory. Janet shares a few of her own – as we simultaneously hear the in-and-out lulling of waves – which may or may not be in synch with the waves we actually see. In turn, we intervene with our own memories, which can lead to reflection or even reinvention. The watery imagery is just another example of how Janet prompts acts of imagination that return to us the ability to identify and creatively associate.3

Marnie Fleming

3 The above text is excerpted from Marnie Fleming’s catalog essay, A Large Slow River, and appears here courtesy of Oakville Galleries.

Related Publications

Janet Cardiff
The Walk Book

Thyssen_Bornemisza Art Contemporary, Vienna in collaboration with Public Art Fund, New York

A Large Slow River
Janet Cardiff

Paddy O'Brien


Oakville Galleries