Susan Philipsz's work deals with a particular set of relationships
between sound, space and subjectivity. She expresses a keen interest in
what she terms 'the emotive and psychological properties of sound', more
specifically in popular music's function as a trigger for personal
memory. For the power of popular song, especially its staying power,
depends equally on its communal appeal and its ability to evoke quite
idiosyncratic associations. The principal tools Philipsz employs in her
delicate negotiations between shared experience and private
introspection are a fine but endearingly fallible singing voice and a
keen attentiveness to performative context, architectural setting and
social space. Much of her work has consisted in smuggling her
disembodied and unaccompanied singing voice into various public and
municipal locations where it's restrained melancholia might insinuate
itself most effectively into the consciousness of an unexpectant public,
to an unpredictable variety of effects.

A case in point is the recording of her singing The Internationale,
which she has presented in a number of modes and venues. One of the
most potentially resonant of these was as a transmission at ten-minute
intervals from a single loudspeaker placed by a frequently used
underpass in Ljubljana, during the 1999 European Biennial, Manifesta 3.
We can only imagine the effect on the average Slovenian pedestrian of
happening upon an inexplicable, disembodied voice softly crooning what
was once a stirring rallying cry for socialists around the world. Here,
in a region riven by the re-emergence of competing nationalisms after
decades of communist hegemony, the collective call to arms and action of
another era was transformed into something quite other. But what
exactly? A displaced lament for a lost utopianism? A bitter and ironic
joke? Neither, or both of the above, according to individual
predilections and prejudice? In any case, the range of specific
reactions to this particular manifestation of The Internationale has to
be substantively different from that of, say, an Irish art collector who
pops the limited edition 7-inch vinyl version of the same recording onto
a turntable in the privacy of her home or, for that matter, a visitor to
the Glen Dimplex exhibition who encounters the work in situ in the
relatively cloistered environment of IMMA.

This difference and particularity is precisely the point of Philipsz's
work. While music's capacity to captivate and transport its audience -
to lift us, however temporarily, out of the here and now - is not in
doubt, Philipsz's intent is quite different: 'With my work I am trying
to bring an audience back to their environment, not the opposite. What
I am trying to do is make you more aware of the place you are in while
heightening your own sense of self.' In order to ensure in the listener
the requisite balance of engagement and detachment, of self-absorption
and contextual awareness, Philipsz must in some respects work against
the more suasive aspects of musical performance. While the situations
in which her vocal performances are presented may on occasion be quite
elaborate, even theatrical, it is important to her that her actual
singing should not be perceived to be so. Her model is not that of the
concerthall stage, the pub come-all-ye, or the karaoke club. For common
to all three contexts is that element of conscious interaction and
emotional involvement with an audience which is an inalienable aspect of
live performance. On the contrary, she aims for the concentrated
artlessness of the solitary crooner whom we might unwittingly but
admiringly overhear. We may become engaged with the music, but never at
the cost of losing our awareness of ourselves as eavesdroppers.
Philipsz's work requires us to respond to the emotional tug of a
familiar song and at the same time be conscious of the lineaments and
location of that very response.

In this light, it is no coincidence that Philipsz should have chosen to
produce a work related to that classic, epiphanic scene of revelation
and consequent alienation in Joyce's short story The Dead, when Gabriel
Conroy accidentally observes his wife Gretta's rapturous response to a
rendition of 'The Lass of Aughrim.' For the sound and film installation
The Dead (2000) Philipsz learned 'The Lass of Aughrim' from John
Huston's film adaptation of the short story, recorded herself singing it
unaccompanied over and over again in a manner consciously designed to
seem 'unselfconscious', and then transposed it onto 35 mm film. The
resultant blank projection is an effective evocation both of 'times
past' and 'time passing', as reflected by Philipsz's lonely, repetitious
singing and the flecks and imperfections which appear on the screen
connoting the film stock's gradual deterioration. In this work we are
invited to consider the evocative power of song at a distance so removed
from an original 'source', and in a context so hedged in by quotation,
contextual overlay and reflexivity, that it comes as something of a
surprise that Philipsz's voice can still effect us.

Philipsz's work as a whole focuses on the enduring power of music and
song in a post-modern world one of whose principal characteristics,
according to certain commentators, is an unprecedented 'waning of
affect'. Whether this waning of affect might be expected to proceed at
a comparable pace in all so-called advanced cultures is a question worth
considering. I once heard a well-known Irish novelist claim to be the
only person he knew who was born and grew up in Enniscorthy and yet
could sing Boolavogue without a hint of emotion. The ludicrous degree
of deliberate discordance, over-the-top fidgeting, and pantomimed
indifference necessary to produce the party-piece in question testified
eloquently and comically to the degree of estrangement necessary to
divest a well-loved song entirely from its accumulated resonances. In a
considerably more subtle and ramified way the work of Susan Philipsz
allows us to experience the power of song while at the same time reflect
both on its general nature and on the specific contexts in which might
come into play.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith, March 2001.




Susan Philipsz is from Glasgow, studied Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone, Dundee and then completed an MA in Fine Art in Belfast. She has been based there for the past 8 years were she was a Director of Catalyst Arts, an artist run gallery and also founded, and is co-director of grassy knoll productions, a mobile arts organisation. She was awarded the PS1 International studio programme in New York in 2000. Since completing the fellowship she is currently doing an artist residency at Kunst-Werke Berlin. She has recently been chosen to participate in Art Pace 2003, San Antonio and in the next Triennal of British Art, Tate Britian 2003. She was shortlisted for The Glen Dimplex Artist Awards Exhibition at The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin in 2001. She participated Manifesta 3, Ljubljana, and has shown in the Melbourne Biennial, 1999 and the Tirana Biennial, 2001.

Other recent shows include: Commission for DAE, San Sebastian (2002) Public commission, Triskel Arts Centre, Cork (2002) Gessellschaft fur Aktuelle Kunst, Bremen, (2002) Curzon cinema, Soho, London (2002) Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon, (2002) Kastanien Alle 34, Berlin (2002) Women,s Library commission, London (2002) Ellen De Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam (2002) PS1 Contemporary Art Centre, New York (2001) The Plug In Gallery, Winnepeg, ( 2001) Gallery of Contemporary Art Bratislava (2001) Kunsthalle der Kulturstiftung, Munich, (2001) Stadtlabor, Lueneburg, (2001) Tramway, Glasgow (2001) The International Language Project, Belfast. (2001) Forthcoming exhibitions / commissions include: Public commission for Begane Grond, Utrecht (2002) Solo exhibition at Temple Bar Gallery, Dublin (2002) Synagogue of Ostia Antica, Rome (2002) Freespace Beijenhof, Belgium (2002) Wolverhampton Art Gallery (2002) Castello De Rivoli, Turin (2003)