Susan Philipsz creates sound installation at Snowmass
December 17, 2010
SNOWMASS – It is an odd and unique niche Susan Philipsz occupies in the contemporary art world.
The 45-year-old was awarded Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize last week for her “Lowlands,” a piece that was first installed under three bridges that span the River Clyde in Philipsz’ native Glasgow. “The Lost Reflection,” created for Germany’s Munster Sculpture Project ’07, was placed under the Tormin Bridge; much to Philipsz’ delight, the city of Munster purchased the work, and now pedestrians crossing the bridge can take in her work. Two years ago, in the Aspen Art Museum’s group show Unknown Pleasures, Philipsz’ work was featured on the bridge that leads to the museum. That piece, “Long Gone,” also showed last year at the Museo de Arte Contemporanea de Vigo, in Spain; that installation was also considered in the awarding of the Turner Prize.
Last week, Philipsz was back in the Roaring Fork Valley to oversee the installation of her latest work, “White Winter Hymnal,” on Snowmass Mountain. The piece, a collaboration between the Aspen Art Museum and the Aspen Skiing Co., is situated at the lower end of the Trestle Bridge, and greets skiers as they make their way from the bottom of the Big Burn area over to the Sheer Bliss lift and on toward the Alpine Springs section of Snowmass.
So you might refer to Philipsz, a talkative and upbeat redhead who lives in Berlin, as the world’s first artist to work specifically on and around bridges. But bridges, as it turns out, are not the niche she has carved out for herself. It’s just that bridges often turn out to be big structures, in communal spaces, that are heavily trafficked – perfect for the sort of public art that Philipsz makes.
Even more important, bridges tend to have great acoustic properties.
Philipsz’s medium is not bridges; it is sound. In Glasgow and Munster and Aspen, she has made sound sculptures – aural art, rather than visual art. Her locations have not been limited to bridges. The early piece “Filter,” from 1998, had Philipsz singing her versions of songs by Radiohead and Nirvana for unsuspecting shoppers in a British supermarket; she has also installed her work in churches and bus stations, as well as galleries and museums.
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Another current Philipsz piece, “Surround Me: A Song Cycle for the City of London,” is showing in six separate locations across London’s financial district – in alleys, next to buildings including the Bank of England, along the banks of the River Thames. And yes, there are speakers under the London Bridge.
“The underside of a bridge has great acoustics,” Philipsz said one day last week, in the lobby of the Limelight Lodge, apparently recovered from the crush of interviews that followed the announcement of the Turner Prize. “Then there’s the water.”
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As a child, Philipsz loved to sing. She sang in a church choir, and at home with her three sisters. But when it came time for college, she chose fine art and attended Scotland’s Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, where she focused on sculpture. But while working on her masters, her take on sculpture started to shift and expand to include her love of music and sound.
“I started thinking about the physicality of singing, the structure,” she said. “When you sing, you think about how you breathe, your diaphragm, how the sound affects the space. I thought of sound in a sculptural way.”
For a while, the work combined sound with traditional sculpture. But gradually the physical/visual element faded away, and for several years, Philipsz’s work has focused exclusively on sound.
Which does not mean she is interested in sound alone. Though her work typically consists of her voice alone, or her voice with some instrumentation, Philipsz doesn’t consider herself a musician. There is no performance aspect to what she does; with rare exception, her sounds are recorded, not made live. “It’s very important that the sound is disembodied, that you see no performer,” she said. “There’s a sense of solitude.”
What Philipsz is curious about is the intersection of sound and place: What happens when you introduce a sonic element into a physical location?
For “White Winter Hymnal,” Philipsz recorded a portion of the song of the same name by the Seattle band, Fleet Foxes. The song was chosen partly for its wintry lyrics: “Scarves of red tied ’round their throats/ To keep their little heads from falling in the snow.” But Philipsz’s repetition of the phrase, “I was falling/ I was falling/ I was falling,” even apart from the meaning of the words, works remarkably well not only to parallel a skier’s motion and rhythm, but also create a hypnotic state. Add in the fact that the piece will take most listeners by surprise – there is an unobtrusive sign on the near side of the Trestle Bridge, but the speakers are hidden in the woods – and the effect is lovely.
“You could pass that space a hundred times. But when you fill the space with sound, it changes the architecture,” Philipsz said. “People might experience it fleetingly, just for a second. But they carry the song with them; it can stimulate their curiosity.”
Philipsz mentions that her work can be “disarming.” But there seems a clear intent not to be intrusive, but to subtly, thoughtfully enhance the experience of nature, solitude and specific spaces. “Surround Me,” for instance, plays only weekends, when London’s financial district is empty and quiet; the intent is to spotlight the silence. Much of the artist’s time is spent in research, and sometimes the result is a historical and literary element to the art. “The Lost Reflection,” located on a German lake, uses a song about two people calling to one another across a body of water.
“It’s different than when you watch a band, or listen to music at home,” Philipsz said of her use of sound. “With my work, you’re grounded in the here and now. You become more aware of the place that you’re in. When you see a band perform, you’re watching the performer, you’re focused on the performance. With me, you become more aware of yourself and the spiritual aspects of sound and the place that you’re in.”