Yesterday turned out to be a wonderful day to experience Janet Cardiff’s Her Long Black Hair in Central Park. I walked up to a kiosk on Central Park South and received a CD player, headphones and some photographs from the Public Art Fund interns at the booth. The art is free, but I had to leave a credit card as security. I went over to the starting point and pressed play. Immediately, I was immersed in a soundscape very similar to the one I’d just been listening to, waiting my turn at a headset, but richer and fuller. Several times I had to stop and look around to realize that there wasn’t a marching band parading through and an ambulance blaring by – it was just on the recording. Interspersed with the sounds is the artist’s voice. She talks to you, talks to herself, talks about the people she sees around her, whether imagined or real. She leads you on a walk through the park.
She tells you, Listen to my footsteps and try to match them. I never thought such an instruction would be so hard, but it’s such a rare thing for most of us to listen to someone else’s footsteps and fall into cadence with them. Several times throughout the audio walk I had to remind myself to stay with the artist’s pace, to not hurry or fall behind, because if you do keep with her, you’re rewarded by so many serendipitous moments. The park is always changing in some ways, but in others, it is amazingly predictable. As you walk past the bandshell, the artist tells you to watch for the skaters. And of course, she’s right: On a nice, clear day like Saturday, the skaters – who love that flat, wide-open surface, I imagine – were out in force. And later, she mentions an Asian couple and their entourage posing for wedding pictures, as they so often do around picturesque spots in the city, and there before me was a couple in real-time doing exactly what the artist said.
So part of Cardiff’s piece is about the layers of time and activity that fill a space. On any given walk, some of the things she speaks about will be part of your own experience, and some of them, you will have to imagine, like – for me, on a clear day – the scattering of rain showers she speaks about at certain points.
Something else she speaks about is the admonition against looking back and – especially in the viewer’s case – of pausing the audio track. Try as I might, I couldn’t press pause on the CD player, for fear that I’d break the mood somehow. The artist references Orpheus and Eurydice, the myth where turning back for even a moment has grave consequences. And twice during the walk, I wanted to stop and just experience the park, because it was a beautiful day and there was so much to see and smell and feel, but there was the artist’s voice, calm and hushed but insistent, telling me to move on, to keep walking. And those moments were a little sad because they illustrated in a physical way the march of time, the need to enjoy things as they come and realize too that they’re passing away: an old adage, so often spoken of, but here, a new way of knowing it.
The tour is available through Sept. 11.