Exhibitions: Journey to the centre of the City

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Missing Voice (Case Study B)

Whitechapel Library, London

The gently persuasive recorded voice ("I want you to walk with me, there are some things I need to show you") guides you to a crime novel, sits you at a book ready to open at a reproduction of The Threatened Assassin by Magritte, and points out that paint is dramatically peeling from high up on the library walls. Janet Cardiff's work is a 45-minute tour which is heard through headphones attached to a Discman.

The work has been recorded on site, and when it guides you outside, it is impossible to tell live from recorded noise. By keeping pace with the sound of the artist's steps, and by listening to her instructions - whose accuracy soon wins your trust - a route is negotiated through Spitalfields. There are fascinating juxtapositions: as we march along Brick Lane the voice points out how mannequins are dressed on the opposite side of the road, just as we pass by a fabulous display of exotic fruit.

When the artist made the recording, she clearly had another tape of herself on an earlier walk of the same route, and occasionally you hear the buzzing comments and noises from this earlier walk. An unnecessary complication, perhaps. Definitely too much for me are the sound-effects (machine-gun fire, music), extracts of dialogue (from film noir), and comments made by an investigator who has found a woman's body complete with red- haired wig, tape recorder and tapes. The layers of narrative distract from the basic scenario of walking though a bustling part of London, seeing and hearing what's going on, and comparing and contrasting it with what was happening when someone else made the same journey.

The route quickly and dramatically takes you from an inner-city area to the glass-and-concrete edge of the City. But you must listen to the main narrator's memories of childhood (what appeared to be a hanging body was only her father's suit left to dry), more of the woman-being-pursued theme, and inanities such as: "The city is infinite, no one has ever found an end to the pattern of the streets." Either the artist is not herself sufficiently interested in the unadulterated outside world, or she doesn't believe that her audience is, and feels the need to entertain with tales of childhood trauma and adult angst.

Entering Liverpool Street Station, you look down on people milling around on the concourse. One strand of the recording ends with a woman getting on a train and escaping from the man who has been following her. Other strands fizzle out here too. The principal narrator says she has to go now, and footsteps fade away. Which is fine, because this is a great urban landscape to be left with.

Maybe the multi-layered personal narrative would hold the listener's interest in gloomier weather, in a darker season, or on a less inspiring, more claustrophobic route, but that's making too many allowances.

`': Whitechapel Library, E1 (information 0171 336 6803) to 27 November