Artissima Live – Interview with Susan Philipsz

Following the experience at #ArtissimaLive, Droste Effect is publishing the interviews collected during Artissima 2018 in Turin; find all articles at #ArtissimaLive.

Fourth conversation: artist Susan Philipsz

Susan Philipsz (Glasgow, 1965) is not a sound artist; she is a sound architect. Her installations evoke memory and history with a finesse that is very rare in these days. Grown up as a sculptor, Philipsz decided to turn to sound with incredible results, which led her to win the Turner Prize in 2010.

Susan Philipsz is represented by Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery and Ellen de Bruijne Projects, that brought her sound installation War Damaged Musical Instruments to Artissima Sound, the new section of the International Fair of Contemporary Art in Turin.
War Damaged Musical Instruments (2015) gives voice to wind and brass instruments that were made almost unusable during conflicts. Focused on the First World War, the installation reasons about the feeling of mourning through recorded fragments of military calls.

On November 2nd we met Susan Philipsz during #Artissimalive, and this is our conversation.

 

Susan Philipsz, War Damaged Musical Instruments, 2015. Installation view Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2016. Courtesy the artist and Ellen de Bruijne Projects Gallery and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photo Jan Windszus

Susan Philipsz, War Damaged Musical Instruments (2015). Installation view at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2016. Courtesy the artist, Ellen de Bruijne Projects and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photo Jan Windszus

 

MARCO ANTELMI – Your work is famous because you give sound new life. What is the meaning of sound for you?

SUSAN PHILIPSZ – Sound is a medium like any other. The reason why I use it is because it defines space and triggers memory. My intent is to adopt its psychological effect in order to make people aware of the place they’re in. It is for the same reason that I privilege interventions in public spaces.

MA – You said that you can’t read or write sheet music and you don’t want to. Can this be read as an act of rebellion against academism?

SP – I think my will was never going in that direction. I wouldn’t read my lack of knowledge in sheet music as an act of rebellion. Simply, if I was able to read or write sheet music my work would be totally different. I studied sculpture at academy, so I guess the natural prosecution of this path is my practice in sound sculpture.

 

Susan Philipsz, Part File Score, 2014. Installation view Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2016. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Susan Philipsz, Part File Score (2014). Installation view at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2016. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

 

MA – Taking as an example Follow Me at Villa Croce, in Genoa, in your exhibitions site-specificity constitutes an important aspect. How do you relate with space?

SP – Space is fundamental in my works. When creating my installations, I always look for a particular place. I’m convinced that architecture, atmosphere, and even the history of the site influence the fruition of the work, so in the same way, when finding the right space, they influence decisions about the show.

MA – Another important aspect is that of immateriality. Your sound installations may look ephemeral but they build a sort of invisible architecture. Sound gains its own structural function. How do you consider sound as architecture?

SP – I have been described in the past as a sound sculptor, but I’m interested in defining sound architecture. More recently I’ve been working with architects, actually building my own architecture in my design process. This is a sort of development of my sculpture background.

 

Susan Philipsz, Part File Score, 2014. Installation view Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2016. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Susan Philipsz, Part File Score (2014). Installation view at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin 2016. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

 

MA – You ask the public to immerse in intimate paths, rather than mediate the experience through other visual languages. Is this kind of storytelling a route to the transcendental, or a way to perceive reality?

SP – It’s kind of both, I think. You could have a simultaneous experience of the work, both transcendental and aware. Sound and music can transport you to another place, especially in public spaces, where my work can be interrupted by sounds of the everyday. You can have the simultaneous experience of being taken away and also being carried very much in the present moment. When you hear unexpected sounds of the space, then you become very self-aware of the place you’re in. I think it’s a very different experience from wallpaper music.

MA – An element that allows your works to be intimate is that of voice. You prefer this simple but effective medium instead of other forms that may include artificial components. How do you consider the comparison with technology in your practice? Do you think that the most important element is to keep an intimate relationship with the public?

SP – Yes, it’s true, I want to retain intimacy, even when I record instruments as in the case of War Damaged Musical Instruments. There’s always a physicality requirement. Let’s consider the wind instruments, you can hear the player breathing: I assume breath as a metaphor for life and mortality. You can really feel the presence of the person behind the instrument, you can feel the breath, you can feel the pose to play the string. In the same way, when I use my voice and that of my sisters, I always use naked voice. I let people impersonate by recording a sound that can be anyone’s voice. Then it becomes interesting to look at people’s response and how they are triggered.

 

Susan Philipsz, The Distant Sound, 2014. Installation view Helligdomsklipperne, Bornholm 2014. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Susan Philipsz, The Distant Sound (2014). Installation view at Helligdomsklipperne, Bornholm 2014. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

 

MA – The sound of your works is usually widespread through the place. This prevents the public from closing themselves in individuality, even though your work is intimate. Do you see sound as a new form of collectivity?

SP – I’m very interested in the experience of a private moment that becomes collective, as in Filter, when I sang naked voice covers of famous pop songs in a Tesco supermarket through the loudspeaker system. I think that familiar sounds, like the singer’s voice, can become something else. It’s interesting to witness the moment when people hear at first the intervention in the public space. There is a moment when they stop and they become aware of this intimate voice singing. They not only become aware of the environment they’re in, but also of the person they’re standing next to. So, this creates a kind of attention. Even though I am in a very small space upstairs singing, there are many other people having an experience collectively.

MA – Is this collectivity also realized in the work itself when you harmonize with your sisters or when you give war instruments new life?

SP – Collectivity is also in the process: I try to give sound to architecture. In War Damaged Musical Instruments I recorded the tunes separately, in different times, in different locations, and every tune is played from its own individual speaker. It results that the process is very long in order to give sound this feeling of being one but also individual and, as I said before, you can feel the person that plays them.

MA – In this way, the instrument becomes the person itself.

SP – Yes, that’s right.

 

Susan Philipsz, installation view of the Turner Prize Exhibition  at Tate Britain London, 2010. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Susan Philipsz, installation view at the Turner Prize Exhibition, Tate Britain, London 2010. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

 

MA – “Sound is visceral. You have to respond to it.” These are your own words, taken from the presentation of your work Air on a Broken String. They remind me how strong the power of a soundtrack is, that in lots of cases twists or re-interprets the images in a film. How much do you think your works are re-shaping the images and spaces where you are usually exhibiting them?

SP – What is most interesting is when my works are installed in different locations besides the original one. Here the work not only assumes but creates new meaning. Context plays an important role by adding a new way of experiencing the work itself. When I won the Turner Prize thanks to Lowlands, a sound installation played on the three city-centre bridges in Glasgow, locals couldn’t believe the work could be anywhere else, but it’s interesting to see how it found a new home successfully at Tate, for instance.

MA – Emotions are inevitably linked with memories. In your work you deepen and concentrate a lot on the stories and history that are behind the places and musical instruments you approach, study and use to create a piece. How do you explore the ways in which memories can be awakened by sounds?

SP – People usually define associations with particular sounds starting from childhood, especially voice and company voice. For example, it makes a very strange effect to listen to an old Radiohead song sung like a Scottish ballad, as I do in Filter. It seems like the song is slowing down, but this is because there is only one voice to be listened to. Actually, the song is not slowed down, it’s a consequence of the presence of naked voice: you feel into it, and when you do, memories emerge playing their role.

 

Susan Philipsz, A Single Voice, 2017. Installation view Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Newcastle 2017. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

Susan Philipsz, A Single Voice (2017). Installation view at Baltic Center for Contemporary Art, Newcastle 2017. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin.

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by Marco Antelmi
in Focus on Europe

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