SUSAN Philipsz’s unusual brand of art has made grown men cry on the streets of Glasgow. Now she’s out to break down sound barriers in Edinburgh. By Susan Mansfield
SUSAN PHILIPSZ is not the first winner of the Turner Prize to describe the experience as surreal, but she may be the first to describe its strangeness in terms of sound. She talks about her walk up to the podium in Tate Britain in 2010 as a barrage of noise, from the cheering of her friends to the chants of students who had occupied the building in protest at the trebling of tuition fees. “That ellipsoid ceiling …” she recalls, “the acoustics were bouncing all over the place. It was like an out-of-body experience.”
Glasgow-born Philipsz is the first artist working principally in sound to win contemporary art’s biggest prize. The key work for which she was nominated was Lowlands, in which recordings of her singing a 16th-century Scottish ballad were installed under three bridges in the centre of Glasgow. One critic likened it to “the ghostly voice of the river itself”. “More than one grown man admitted to me that it had made him cry,” says Philipsz.
Sound can take you like that. We may have become increasingly sophisticated consumers of the visual, but a voice can cut across that, particularly an ordinary human voice, tuneful but untrained, inhabiting an unexpected space. Philipsz usually sings her work herself, unaccompanied. Her singing has been heard in the walkways of the City of London, across loudspeakers in a Tesco Metro in Manchester, in Helsinki Central Station, and in many other spaces across the world. Often, the songs are folk songs, old songs about love and death, but she isn’t averse to a bit of Syd Barrett or even Nirvana.
“Sound is more visceral, I think that’s true,” says Philipsz, 46, who chooses her words carefully, as if she is thinking about how they sound. “People often describe to me the exact moment [they heard the work], what it was like. They become acutely aware of their surroundings, the weather, what the sky looked like.”
Until she won the Turner Prize, Philipsz was less well known in the UK than abroad. Her international reputation built up over more than a decade. In the last two years, she has shown work in Aachen, Chicago, Sydney, Beijing and Sao Paolo, and her work is currently in Documenta, the prestigious contemporary art fair held every five years in Kassel, Germany. It is also in Edinburgh for the Art Festival, in her first Scottish commission since Lowlands.
Having sung in choirs since childhood, she isn’t in the least self-conscious about singing the notes of her new work for me in the half-empty Edinburgh restaurant where we meet. And no-one pays any attention to the sweet, soft voice singing three clear tones.
She admits, having lived for ten years in Belfast, where she did her Masters, and the last ten in Berlin, that she barely knew the city at all. She began, as she always does in a new place, absorbing the landscape, listening to its acoustics, reading about its history. “What made sense was to find a hill to stand on to look around, and I’d heard that Calton Hill has a panoramic vista of the city.”
Once there, she quickly noticed the Nelson Monument, with its time ball, installed in 1853 and dropped from the top of the mast at exactly 1pm every day to allow ships in the Firth of Forth to check their clocks and chronometers. The ball pre-dated the One O’Clock Gun, which was added as an audible time signal in 1861. The two were synchronised by a metal cable which stretched three- quarters of a mile across the rooftops of Edinburgh from the monument on Calton Hill to the Half-Moon Battery at Edinburgh Castle, where the gun is fired.
This slice of history reminded Philipsz of something contemporary residents of Edinburgh easily forget: the city’s once-crucial relationship to the sea. With all this buzzing in her mind, she made a further serendipitous discovery: in this city, in the late 18th century, a physicist named John Robison invented the siren. His invention, which involved a pneumatic mechanism and pipes from an organ, was not a warning signal (though it was later used as one), but a musical instrument which could be played under water and was “equal in sweetness to a clear female voice”.
Now Philipsz had a web of connections: the sirens of Greek mythology, the Athens of the North, a dash of Victorian engineering and, of course, a clear female voice. Her artwork, Timeline, is a series of seven sound installations along the route of the cable (long since removed) which sounds at exactly 1pm each day. Philipsz describes it as “a fleeting intervention of three harmonising tones, creating the sense of the sound moving through the city”.
Philipsz studied sculpture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design in Dundee, but was always interested in “sound as a sculptural experience”. On her Masters course in Belfast, she made installations with sound, but gradually, in subsequent works, the installations faded and the sound took over. Yet she realised she was still a visual artist.
“Right at the start, I was asked to be in Sound Art festivals, but people stopped inviting me because I stuck out like a sore thumb,” she said. “Most of the artists had a musical background, they had a totally different way of working to me. I’ve always shown in the context of visual art.”
A seminal opportunity came at the European art fair Manifesta, in Ljubljana in 1999, when a recording of her singing the socialist anthem the Internationale was played in a busy public walkway. “I associate singing it with throngs, demonstrations, people singing it together, but with a single voice it’s ambiguous, it could be interpreted as a lament for something which is past or a clarion call to political action.” She still remembers seeing a group of old Slovenian women standing listening to the song, visibly moved.
A note of political awareness sounds through all her work, shaped by her teenage years in Glasgow. It is the chief legacy she has taken from the city where she grew up, where her family still lives.
“I was really active then, I campaigned against the poll tax and was involved in raising money for the miners during the miners’ strike. That really politicised me, as it did a lot of people.
“I’ve never practised as an artist in Glasgow, never studied there, I’ve said “no” to taking part in (television) shows of Glasgow artists because I don’t want to be just jumping on the bandwagon. But it’s a very political city, and that has had a bearing on my work.”
• Timeline by Susan Philipsz can be heard at the Nelson Monument, Old Calton Cemetery, North Bridge, Waverley Bridge, behind the National Gallery of Scotland and in West Princes Street Gardens, until 2 September. www.edinburghartfestival.com
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Saturday 18 May 2013
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