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Ms. Cardiff Goes to Washington
by Sidney Lawrence
Art-savvy visitors to the District of Columbia generally dodge the steamy outdoors during August, but a work by Canadian-born, Berlin-based sound-meister and Venice Lion d’Or winner Janet Cardiff may cause them to reconsider.

Words Drawn in Water, Aug. 3-Oct. 30, 2005, is Cardiff’s 33-minute "audio walk" commissioned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for its smallish outdoor parcel and a nearby Mall site, revisiting an art form Cardiff invented 14 years ago.

Developed for museums and other public spaces in Berlin, London, Rome, Muenster, San Francisco and elsewhere (this summer, she has an audio tour in Central Park), Cardiff’s auditory ambles -- experienced through a digital player with headphones -- are a new kind of participatory artwork, which use gentle directions, musings from the imagination and explications of fact in tandem with music, sound, good timing and geography. As a Hirshhorn interview brochure somewhat grandiosely tells us, they are "intense, three-dimensional soundscapes."

Cardiff’s tour begins in the Hirshhorn lobby looking out at its open-air, disc-shaped fountain, which is quite large and has a gushing waterspout at its center. On the soundtrack is Paul Robeson singing Old Man River, while Cardiff talks about water as an emblem of metamorphosis and the passage of time.

Cardiff reportedly had difficulty working in D.C. because she disagrees with the current administration. Perhaps that is why the first "zinger" moment -- provoking a bit of real paranoia outdoors -- is the sound of choppers coming out of nowhere (shades of Apocalypse Now) after we cross the Hirshhorn plaza to disembodied cheers. Yikes! The terror subsides when Cardiff, invisible but kindly (like a child’s imaginary friend), leads us into the sculpture garden to look and think about human form. A guard and a male docent join the serene chorus on the headphones. 

A stroll along the National Mall comes next. Cardiff provides a rich tapestry of sound effects -- joggers, political demonstrators, noisy kids and what might be called auditory icons of history, such as snippets from the Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech, for instance. In truth, sitting there on a bench as she instructs us to, I would have enjoyed another five minutes in deeper contemplation of the Mall’s long past -- from swamp to Victorian-era garden and World War II military encampment to the present.

As the tour draws to a close, we are led inside another museum to cool off in the darkness of a famous room decorated by a 19th century American artist fond of the Thames -- can you guess which one? Cardiff’s finale is very theatrical and a bit corny (Old Man River, again), though her vision is startlingly quirky and always imaginative. And her essential message about the mysteries of time couldn’t be more compelling.

SIDNEY LAWRENCE is an artist and critic living in Washington, D.C. An exhibition of his own paintings and mixed-media works opens at District Fine Arts in October.