Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz and sisters create ‘sound art’ for Pope

AS CHILDREN, artist Susan Philipsz and her sisters sang for Pope John Paul II during his 1982 visit to Scotland.

AS CHILDREN, artist Susan Philipsz and her sisters sang for Pope John Paul II during his 1982 visit to Scotland.

Thirty years on, an artwork created by Philipsz based on their performance is to be gifted to Pope Benedict XVI.

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Philipsz, who grew up in Glasgow’s Maryhill and won the Turner Prize in 2010 for a piece of “sound art”, which featured her singing a Scottish folk song and was installed under three Glasgow bridges, has been invited to create a sound piece for Milan, which is hosting the World Meeting of Families later this month and which the Pope is to attend.

The piece, called Close To Me, features Philipsz and her three sisters, Barbara, Joan and Sarah, singing the refrain of a hymn they learnt as children with their church choir in Maryhill. It will be permanently installed in the San Gottardo palatine chapel adjacent to Milan’s Palazzo Reale and gifted to the Pope by Milan’s department of culture during his visit.

“I went over to Glasgow and recorded the refrain of this hymn we learnt to sing when the Pope visited Glasgow,” said Philipsz, who now lives in Berlin. “The words are ‘You are always close to me following all my ways, may I be always close to you following all your ways’. So I took this refrain and we sing it in a round. It’s about people – you, me, everyone. The four of us recorded it in this little studio in Glasgow.”

She said she was overwhelmed to be told that the installation, to be unveiled tomorrow in Milan, was to be gifted to the Pope. “It’s nuts,” she said. “I was saying to my sisters that when we’re old women we can go and hear ourselves sing in the palatine chapel in Milan.”

Philipsz, whose work has been in demand internationally since she won the Turner Prize two years ago, also revealed how she recently collaborated with her 80-year-old father – who emigrated to Glasgow from Burma as a young man – on another work inspired by her Glasgow childhood, which recently went on show in Beijing.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with my dad but we’ve just never found the right occasion,” she said.

“My father is fascinated by China, and used to tell me these stories of his time growing up in Burma when he lived right on the border of this Chinese community and could hear the sounds of the distant funeral gongs in the night.

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“So when my gallery in Tokyo said they were opening a gallery in Beijing and asked if I would be interested in doing a show there, I thought this would be the perfect point to do something with my dad.”

Philipsz recorded her father singing a Welsh folk song called The Ash Grove that they had both sung when she was growing up. She then recorded herself singing the same tune and the installation, which is currently being exhibited at the Mizuma & One Gallery in Beijing, features both their voices singing in unison.

“I took my father to Beijing for the opening and he had the time of his life,” she said. “It was great to do a collaboration with him, he enjoyed the experience a lot.”

Philipsz also revealed more details of her upcoming work for this year’s Edinburgh Art Festival, based on the One O’Clock Gun, which will feature an “intervention” of sound every day at 1pm across the city during August.

“We’ve secured eight locations across the city between Nelson’s Column and Edinburgh Castle,” she said.

“The whole point of the gun was so sailors could set their instruments from the water, and it used to be that there was a cable that ran from the column to the castle. So my One O’Clock Gun will be looking at the notion of sirens – an actual siren as well as the mythological siren.

“It will be very fleeting, a small intervention at 1pm every day.”