artist / participant
Susan Philipsz uses her art to investigate the sculptural and psychological potential of sound. At her shows, exhibition halls remain empty, altered instead on a perceptive level by sound installations which provoke new interpretations of the space in which they are to be found. The attendant public are subjected to her journey through fleeting time as the music ebbs and flows. The fullness of sound within the emptiness of space comes back to the listener, radically aware now of their position, their location. The work is bestowed with a strange sense of physicality, achieved somehow through an immaterial sensation. Philipsz employs a capella interpretations of the traditional popular repertoire, with a voice that, whilst trained, is by no means professional, which draws us in with its familiarity whilst simultaneously making the original source seem ever more distant.
As far as the psychological implications of her work are concerned, by reinterpreting recognisable pieces of music, Philipsz cleverly plays with our collective memory. Through her use of references to the original contexts from which she takes her songs or their lyrics, she seeks to emotionally provoke the listener. Her intervention has a special relationship to the production of subjectivity: it strives to alter individual identity, manipulating its ability to remain tied down, listening with the disturbing uncertainty of not knowing where to look in this supposed space fit for contemplation or provoking an emotional response, a movement which complicates this emptiness with its sense of loss or a longing for a chance of recuperation.
Among other important events at which she has been present, Susan Philipsz (Glasgow, Great Britain, 1965) has participated in Manifesta 3 (Ljubljana, 2000) and the Triennial of British Art (Tate Britain, London, 2003) as well as developing her latest project for the Skulptur Projekte Münster 2007. The CGAC have recently incorporated four of her pieces to their permanent collection.
I Company 2000 Sound Installation 10 minute loop Hall The sound seems to arrive from the background, creating a possible fiction in which someone is playing the piano in the room next door, pressing the keys in search of a melody. The piece they are trying to play is the central theme to the film Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg. The subject matters covered here, such as absence and longing, are constructed in parallel through the hesitant interpretation which gradually becomes the piece in question.
II The Dead 2000 35 mm film projection with 22 minute audio soundtrack loop Auditorium In this piece, Philipsz gives an a capella performance of the traditional Irish ballad The Lass of Aughrim which serves as the soundtrack to the accompanying film. This is in fact the central theme from John Huston’s last film The Dead (1987), an adaptation of a short story from James Joyce’s The Dubliners. The climax to this film comes when Anjelica Huston, who has just gone out with her husband to celebrate Christmas, happens to hear someone singing this song. The melody takes her back to a traumatic episode in her youth in which a love-struck young man committed suicide because of her. This brutal emotion causes her to question the calm happiness she has become accustomed to throughout her life. The film ends with the snow covering all of Ireland in a thick white sheet, “falling on the living and on the dead”. In Susan Philipsz’s piece, the film shows no image at all, just the whiteness of the snow which sparkles like a fragment of time, set to a song which repeats itself over and over again. An open space on which to project the spectres of individual memory which have established us as subjects.
III The Glass Track 2005 Sound Installation 10 minute loop In this installation, the sound is created by glasses containing varying amounts of water, the rims of which are rubbed with moistened fingertips. The sound, which appears to fluctuate in space, causes a sensation of abandonment which changes our conventional perception of what constitutes an exhibition space, defining its limits through devices such as the use of echo and repetition, which resonate in the bodies of the spectators.
IV There Is Nothing Left Here 2006 6 min. 40 sec. loop The title of this piece is a reference to a song by Bonnie Prince Billy which talks of a moment in all our lives: that summer way back in our youth when love first blossomed. The past is cut short in the chorus and we are returned to a present in which “there is nothing left”. The silences that create the lack of accompaniment with respect to the original music accentuate, through an absence which is overly explicit, a profound sense of melancholy. Continuing the vocal interpretation, the sound of a vibraphone rings out though the surrounding space, accentuating the emptiness. This is the overriding effect of pop ballads – when they come to an end, nothing is indeed left save their clinging, cloying melancholic emotion.
V From the Beginning 2007 Sound Installation 8 min. 16 sec. loop This is a piece which, once again, alternates voice and vibraphone. On this occasion there are three consecutive songs: the ballad that announces the tragic death of Police Sergeant Howie, the innocent protagonist of the classic 1973 horror film, The Wicker Man, John Cage’s repetitive composition The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, written in 1942 with lyrics taken from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, and the final piece from the album Revolver by The Beatles, which John Lennon wrote whilst reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, under the influence of Timothy Leary’s commentaries in The Psychedelic Experience. Here the vibraphone serves to accentuate the subject matter suggested by the lyrics: the elegy-like sense of collapse when confronted with a change in consciousness - this is almost a lullaby in three parts, the evocation of a dream to which one subjugates oneself from the cradle to the grave, over and over again.
VI The Air We Breathe 10 minute loop 2007 Specially produced for the CGAC’s Doble Espacio Auditorium, here Susan Philipsz has opted to install a series of organ pipes of varying length in order to record the sounds obtained from blowing through each of them in turn to see the different tones they produce depending on their size. These sounds, each one emanating from its own loudspeaker and yet also fluctuating, respond like echoes across open space. The physicality of breath across organ pipes creates a spectral human presence in thee available space, inexistent bodies which seem to evoke an atmosphere of mourning, of tears of pain: anguish for what is not there.
VII Follow Me 2006 4 channel surround sound installation 2 min. 27 sec. loop repeated every 5 minutes CGAC Collection The old Bonaval cemetery Created for the 4th Berlin Biennale, this installation was originally set up in an old military cemetery in the German capital. The audio track is a version of the song “Happenings 10 Years Time Ago” by the Yardbirds, which deals with the duality of reality and illusion. The four independent sound channels, erected here where two paths cross in the Bonaval cemetery, in turn imposing themselves upon and complementing each other, reverberating around the funeral cypresses growing there like the memory of disappeared voices which nonetheless remain trapped in time.
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Ground Floor, Doble Espacio Auditorium, Bonaval Park