Audio walk and telescope

12 minutes

Curated by Gary Garrels for the group exhibition Present Tense: Nine Artists in the Nineties at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, USA

Janet Cardiff

This was my first walk for the inside of a museum and it posed some challenges in terms of dealing with a fairly consistent, boring soundscape and a limited amount of space. Right away I knew I would work with the stairwell as a memory map that unleashes the memories of the walker as she climbs the stairs. Four years later I went back and did a video walk there, again using the stairwell as an important element. I didn’t realize until I looked back at the scripts that in both pieces there is a scene with a man telling a woman what to do in an intimate situation.

Janet Push the elevator button. We’ll go down to the first floor.

sound of bedroom, walking around on wooden floor

Man saying lines from Hitchcock’s Vertigo No, that dress isn’t right… try on this one … I want you to wear these shoes.

Janet Let’s go up. Go around the corner to the front of the main stairs. Walk up the stairs. I’ll walk slowly so we can stay together.

Janet I remember the basement… clammy stone walls covered in blackness, the smell. A hand under my shirt … Let’s go to the left and up the stairs … I never imagined that love could hurt my chest like a balloon blowing up inside me.

Janet Let’s continue up the stairs … we’ll stop at the next balcony … I saw a drawing of a building that reminds me of this one, a temple for a memory map … a technique for remembering … it was one that was used by the Greeks. It had circular corridors, open to the sky in the middle. As you walked through it in your mind you could remember things.

I kept thinking about the idea of a museum as a repository of experiences and memories and a place to which you can return and consider your own changes. Traditionally, museums stayed the same over many years and you could come back to a room ten years later and experience it differently. Similarly, you might revisit a work of art, like a painting by Matisse, after ten years and see it completely differently. The work of art doesn’t change, you change. The museum, however, is a very special institution, and now they are not only being renovated, but their very function is being reconsidered and reconceived.

In some ways, the building of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art fits oddly in the city. The landscape and light are extremely beautiful but the building turns its back on it, separated from the street and the outside environment. But it is wonderful because once you penetrate that membrane and come inside, it opens up into a grand operatic space, rather like a stage set. Without people, it is quite cold and aloof, but people like the building and like coming into it, and it can become an intensely animated space. The galleries are disconnected from the public space, which is good because although you have a very theatrical public space, once you go through the doors into the galleries, the architecture steps back and the art becomes self-contained. The building itself proposes a kind of journey, opening up architecturally, expanding, from the lower level to the top, ending with a bridge that carries you under an extraordinary oculus into the upper galleries.

I was very curious about how Janet would respond to the building. What she did was brilliant and wonderful. She started at the top, where you would pick up the recording to take with you. The first thing she asked you to do was to look out at the landscape, through a large window that was usually screened and obscured. Her approach was opposite to that of the building, it pulled you out to look at the breathtaking landscape. But I think she also understood very well the internal contra-dictions of the building itself – that it has pretenses to being both a piazza and a cathedral. She created both a sense of experiencing yourself in a public arena but also the feel of being in a building that suggests a spiritual journey, an introspective, cerebral place. She wove between these experiences of the public and the private, of the secular and the sacred.

It was a new building at that time, without a history. What Janet did was to add layers to time, to add events one could not possibly have experienced before in the building. So it’s about a building and its possibilities, about what will happen over time. Every time you go into a museum where you have been before, you bring something from your previous experiences. Of course, when you’re in a new building, that doesn’t exist. Janet built histories, memories, voices, and events that had not yet occurred, and probably never will into the emptiness. Taking Janet’s walk at that time was, in a way, looking back into the future while again making the present palpable and visceral.

Gary Garrels

Related Publications

Janet Cardiff
The Walk Book

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