The Lost Reflection, Munster, Germany

Susan Philipsz is thoughtful, unassuming, understated. Her art is unique, a remarkable blend of the personal, the technical, the historical, the culturally relevant, the ethereal, the cerebral. As they say in the UK, her sound pieces are “magic.”

I knew of Lowlands, her recording of herself singing a sailors lament, overlayed three times and installed under three bridges spanning the River Clyde in her native Glasgow, for which Philipsz received the Turner Prize in 2010. But hearing Philipsz talk in New York last week, I was introduced to many of her other sound pieces: You Are Not Alone at the Radcliff Observatory in Oxford, Study for Strings at the Kassel train station as part of dOCUMENTA 13, The Lost Reflection in Munster, and others.

Water, tears, the sea, melancholy, the underbelly of history and memory are prominent in much of Philipsz sound art, but what came through most clearly in her talk was how she seeks to unearth meaning and resonance at the site she has chosen, drawing on it’s references and ghosts for meaning. You Are Not Alone is a great example. Phillipsz described discovering that the Radcliff Observatory has a huge collection of radio interval signals from across time and around the world, the unique tone signatures of radio stations. Then she also described learning about Guglielmo Marconi, a pioneering scientist of radio transmission whose archives were housed at Oxford. Marconi hypothesized that radio waves never die out completely but travel inaudibly forever, throughout the universe, a remarkable assertion which Philipsz said she found very evocative. Philipsz recorded radio interval signals on a vibraphone, then transmitted the recording to a receiver and speakers in the observatory.

Study for Strings, Kassel, Germany

Study for Strings is even more poignant. Philipsz described learning how Kassel was a major center for the Third Reich, and its train station a major departure point for Jews to the concentration camps, particularly Jews accomplished in the arts. She came across composer Pavel Haas, and his Study for String Orchestra. Haas was held captive at the Theresienstadt camp, in what is now the Czech Republic, along with many of the people who were sent there through Kassel. An orchestra at the camp presented the Study in 1944 during a visit from the Red Cross (where the Nazis sought to mask the camp’s true nature). The piece was lost and only recovered because the conductor at the camp miraculously survived and was able to piece it together from memory, Philipsz said. Philipsz recorded the piece with only a cello and viola, the absence of other instruments evoking those artists who died in the camps. The recording, and its complicated 24-speaker presentation at the site, adds up to a work the resonates, somberly and amazingly, on many levels.

With the specialized research she puts into each piece prior to its creation, you would think that Philipsz regards her sound installations as site specific, and not very movable. So it was interesting to hear that she doesn’t feel this way at all, and often enjoys the new and sometimes fortuitous connection a piece will have when installed elsewhere than the site for which it was designed. In fact, while I had thought Lowlands had been made for its site in Glasgow, Philipsz said the piece was actually first made for and exhibited at a gallery in Berlin, where she lives.

Philipsz is currently creating a permanent piece for Governors Island in New York, and will have a show at MoMA too. I look forward to experiencing these.