Thursday, December 2, 2010

The ‘sound sculptor’ that could win the Turner Prize

A famous sculptor is filling my living room with her priceless art. Only she’s not actually here. She’s on speakerphone from her home in Berlin, singing a dreamy 16th-century Scottish folk song in a fey, untrained voice. It’s the same voice, same song, that is commanding gallery space in the Tate Britain and become the toast of the international art world. Ah, the strange wonders of Skype and Susan Philipsz. 

The 44-year-old Scottish “sound sculptor” is currently the odds-on favourite to win the 2010 Turner Prize, to be announced next week.

She was also the show’s most controversial nominee, given that her work – which consists of songs sung plainly by the artist, recorded and looped and played in carefully selected locations, from underpasses in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to the rotunda of the Guggenheim Museum in New York – is completely intangible.

But don’t mistake her for a musician, or even a “sound artist” in the tradition of John Cage. Philipsz is more interested in perceptions of architecture and space – both internal and external – than in key changes or composition. Her work is less musical than it is performative and experiential.

In that sense, it is not dissimilar to the works of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Canadian artists whose recent works include The Cabinet of Curiousness – which people can “play” by opening its drawers, releasing different sounds. Philipsz also calls to mind the ambient-noise projects of American artist Bill Fontana, who once outfitted Big Ben’s tower with microphones and sensors.
Philipsz’s work, however, is much simpler. “I’m obviously not a trained singer; and I don’t do anything to make my songs sound any better, as you normally would in a studio,” she says.

Sitting in a cavernous white space at the Tate this week, listening to the artist sing an old sailor’s lament, I was inexplicably moved. Experiencing her work is a bit like being on the street when someone drives by blaring a song you once loved – banal and yet magically familiar.

One of her earlier installations took place at a big-box outlet, Tesco, in Manchester. Philipsz sang songs live over the loudspeaker normally used to announce specials on frozen TV dinners. As shoppers shopped, she watched from a glassed-in upstairs office and, once in a while, pressed the intercom button and sang a rendition of Radiohead’s Airbag or the Rolling Stones’ As Tears Go By.

“Suddenly there would be this drop in the ambient noise – which is much louder than you think in a grocery store – and people would stop what they were doing and look around, bewildered,” she remembers. “Some would giggle and talk; others were silent and seemed quite moved.”

The Tate exhibit is a distillation of Philipsz’s work performed under a famous bridge in Glasgow (not far from her hometown of Dundee) and she is currently exhibiting at locations throughout London’s business district, including the Tower of London and the banks of the River Thames; and in a public garden in Lisbon. She has been commissioned to do an outdoor sound piece this winter for Colorado’s Aspen Museum of Art, which will feature one of her songs played on a mountain ridge over a valley (“They’re going to give me skiing lessons!”) and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.

It’s an impressive schedule for an artist who has spent most of her professional life believing her work would never find a wider market. “I spent my whole life thinking I’ll always be poor, I’ll never sell a thing, and suddenly everything changed,” she says.

So what explains the widespread appeal of this ephemeral new art form? The answer might just be hardwired into our brains. As McGill University professor Daniel J. Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music and the just-published The World in Six Songs, argues in his new book, “music is not simply a distraction or a pastime but a core element of our identity as a species, an activity that paved the way for far more complex behaviours.”

Perhaps in Philipsz’s ethereal a cappella melodies we recognize strains of our ancestors singing what Levitan defines as “knowledge songs” – the songs we use to teach our children, or outsiders, how our culture works. If you think this practice sounds outdated, just remember how you learned the alphabet.
Levitin also writes about how music changes the way we behave – witness the now-common police practice of playing classical music in seedy locales to drive away the riff-raff. Philipsz, who’s work has regularly been exhibited under bridges where the homeless sleep and junkies use, hopes her work makes these environments more – rather than less – welcoming for denizens of the street.

She remembers one of the most memorable moments of the exhibit under the bridge over the River Clyde in Glasgow. “An old man holding a bottle came up to me and said, ‘Can you hear those voices, or is it just me?’ ” A few feet away, one of his mates was crying.

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