Susan Philipsz has been nominated for the presentations of her work Lowlands at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and Long Gone in the group exhibition Mirrors at MARCO Museo de Arte Contemporánea de Vigo, Spain. Philipsz uses her own voice to create uniquely evocative sounds installations that play upon and extend the poetics of specific, often out-of-the-way spaces.
The final room of the exhibition belongs to Susan Philipsz, but you hear it long before you see it. The eerie sound of Philipsz’s sound installation drifts through the other rooms until you finally get to the source of the sound – a huge empty room, with three speakers and a bench.
Although, in some ways, Philipsz’s installation is the simplest of the 4 shortlisted artists, I found it really, really beautiful. Usually, Philipsz uses recordings of her own voice to change the way we relate to public spaces – often quite surprising spaces like stairwells and shopping centres. Lowlands, the installation she reworked for the Turner Prize exhibition, was originally conceived for three bridges over the river Clyde in Glasgow. She recorded three versions of a Scottish lament, Lowlands Away, and a different version played under the arches of each bridge. As an unsuspecting member of the public walked along the river, they would hear snippets of each song. But, while each version is slightly different, they also come together at various points, intensifying the sound and pulling the spaces together.
The experience is presumably very different in a gallery, but it is still very moving. There are three speakers in the room, so the sound seems to come from all around. And each speaker plays a different version of Lowlands Away. At points it sounds mismatched, or as if the versions are competing. But the refrain repeats rhythmically, bringing a sense of order and calm to the music. And as the three versions come together the sound intensifies, and so does the emotion of the piece. For me, the most effective part of the work was a moment I almost missed. After sitting in the room for quite a long time, I decided to get up and leave. But just as I did, all 3 songs finished. The sound disappeared, and I was left in an empty room. The contrast of the silence gives extra power to the singing as it forces you to reflect on how the music affected your experience of the space.
The work raised all sorts of interesting questions for me. I guess the main one is how sound can affect our experience of space and, by extension, everything else. I’ve already written about how Susan Philipsz’s singing probably affected my appreciation of Angels de la Cruz’s work. And, when you think about it, the whole of our lives are accompanied by a soundtrack (not just music, but talking, shouting, birds, noise) which we rarely think about. It’s only really when someone really obviously changes things that you appreciate how much of the world you don’t think about.
I also liked the way that the sound drew attention to the gallery space – again, the gallery is a backdrop you often don’t think about when viewing art. It’s little more than a container for the art you’re there to see. But Philipsz challenge you to really experience the space you’re in, and to experience it in a way you otherwise might not.
And I found myself thinking a lot about how you maintain the purity of a work like this. Not only did it ‘leak’ into other areas of the gallery, but there were some people having a loud conversation just outside the door which for a while was quite annoying. You can rope off a painting or sculpture, or you can put it behind glass, but Philipsz’s work defies that kind of effort to contain it. But after thinking about it for a while, I think this is probably exactly what Philipsz aims for in her work. You re-evaluate the space by interacting with it. She doesn’t just comment on what you see, but she changes the way you experience it. Just as (I imagine) you would if the singing was being played under three bridges, you begin to experience it before you arrive, you still hear it as you walk away, and you don’t experience any of it in isolation from the rest of the world.
Fundamentally, I think Susan Philipsz reminded me that we are whole beings who experience the world in a rich variety of ways. All four of the artists on display challenged me to think about how I see what I see, how I know what I know, and why I think what I think. All of them, in their different ways, prodded me to look at the world a bit differently, with my eyes open. And I think that’s definitely how I left the exhibition. And I left praising God for the richness and wonder of the world he’s created.
You can watch a 3 minute film about Susan Philipsz’s Turner Prize 2010 Exhibition on 4OD.