Art or Sound? Susan Philipsz’s Sculpted Melancholy Works Exist as Both
The Scottish artist Susan Philipsz (born 1965) made sound art history when she won the acclaimed Turner Prize for her audio-based work Lowlands Away in 2010.
A renowned and iconic sound artist, Philipsz was trained as a sculptor, a fondness that is evident in her work.
Her works tend to feature recordings of her own “untrained”, without instrumental accompaniment – or a cappella. Fascinated with the “sculptural values of sound”, the artist frequently selects locations that are architecturally ethereal, interplaying with the dimension of space – whether beneath the bridges of the River Clyde in Glasgow or in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s signature rotunda in New York.
When she applied to the Glasgow School of Art, she was rejected and instead opted to specialise in sculpture at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, in Dundee, Scotland.
Later in 1994, she received her MFA (Master in Fine Arts) from the University of Ulster in Belfast, Ireland.
Here, she developed her first work of sound art in 1994 as a student. Titled Safe, the work was a rendition of a lullaby from Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel And Gretel opera and was played in a chimney at a former retirement home.
The turning point for the artist’s career came in 2000 when she was commissioned a site-specific work for the European travelling biennale Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Her career continued to take off over the years: in 2004, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) award, and in 2010 snagged the prestigious Turner Prize. She was also the director of Catalyst Arts in Belfast for years.
One of the major women in sound art, Philipsz currently lives and works in Berlin. Her work is held at major collections around the world, including at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.
Her recent work The Fall at Amsterdam’s oldest building, the Oude Kerk, was part of our Global Sound Exhibitions to see in 2022 and includes her melancholic interpretation of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck’s masterpiece Mein Junges Leben Hat Ein End.
Recently, the Glaswegian artist has been collaborating with Whitehaven Harbour Commissioners to develop a permanent site-specific work as part of the public art commission program “Deep Time”, launching in 2023 in celebration of the West Cumbria landscape – a stretch across England’s North West coast.
Read on to learn more about Philipsz and to discover some of her most popular works of sound art.
NOTABLE WORKS BY SUSAN PHILIPSZ
‘THE INTERNATIONALE’ (2000)
Philipsz’s work for the Manifesta 3 biennale in Ljubljana, Slovenia, was a sound installation featuring a recording of her own voice singing “The Internationale”, the famous socialist anthem of the international workers' movement.
The recording was played over a loudspeaker in 10-minute intervals. It’s hard to tell whether the artist is enthusiastic or sad, and her voice is intentionally ambiguous.
The work helped propel the artist’s career internationally. After debuting at Manifesta 3, The Internationale was exhibited at other shows.
‘LOWLANDS AWAY’ (2010)
Commissioned for the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art in 2010, Lowlands Away is a series of recordings with the artist singing three versions of 16th-century lament in her melodic voice: “Lowlands, lowlands away, my John, for my love lies drowned in the windy lowlands.”
The recordings were played simultaneously under three bridges on River Clyde in Glasgow.
Lowlands Away won the artist the Turner Prize, the annual award given to British artists for exhibition or works of “outstanding” value.
It was the first time the Turner Prize was awarded to a work of sound. On its occasion, the work was later exhibited in an empty gallery space at the Tate Britain.
‘THE SHALLOW SEA’ (2010)
Commissioned for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s 2010 show “Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance”, The Shallow Sea features the artist singing a version of “O Willow Waly”, written by George Auric and Paul Dehn for the film The Innocents.
“We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow, but now alone I lie and weep beside the tree,” she sang.
The work was played every ten minutes in the museum’s signature rotunda.
‘PART FILE SCORE’ (2014)
Part File Score is the artist’s tribute to Hanns Eisler (1898–1962), a German Jewish composer who fled to the US. after his music was banned by the Nazis, only to be blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for alleged ties to the Communist party, and then deported back to Europe.
Part File Score features a 24-channel sound installation and a series of prints, first shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and later at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York.
In 2015, the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC acquired the work for their permanent collection, which already included Philipsz’s earlier work Sunset Song (2003).
‘TOO MUCH I ONCE LAMENTED’ (2019)
How does sound trigger memory? Created for the Tadao Ando-designed Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, Too Much I Once Lamented is a five-channel sound installation located in the museum’s central water court.
In it, she works around the building’s acoustics to deliver her version of a 1622 madrigal ballad by the Welsh composer Thomas Tomkins.
“Too much I once lamented, while love my heart tormented, fa la la la,” goes one line.
In her recordings of each of the five parts of the ballads, her pauses are intentionally audible.
Continue exploring sound art:
- Exploring Carsten Nicolai’s Audiovisual Work
- The Life and Work of Alvin Lucier
- Seeing is Revealing: In Conversation with Emmanuel Van der Auwera
- Global Sound Art Exhibitions
- Iconic Works of Sound Art
- Female Sound Artists
- Sound Artists You Need to Know
- Sonic Art: An Overview
Cover Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Writer | Bana Bissat
Bana Bissat is a Milan-based writer who reports on sound art for Sound of Life. She has written for Flash Art, Lampoon, and Cultured. @banabissat