Art Seen: National

WAVES OF SOUND, WAVES OF HEARTBREAK // SUSAN PHILIPSZ AT THE PULITZER FOUNDATION

By Annette LePique

Susan Philipsz’ exhibition Seven Tears is a multi-media environment that combines sound, sculpture, film, photography, and painting to explore the ways in which sound structures an affective experience of space. For Philipsz, sound is a possibility, sound is a memory, sound shapes the way we move through the world. Philipsz’ practice coalesces around questions of sound and embodiment. She won the Turner Prize in 2010 and was the first artist to receive the award for work with and within the field of sound. Throughout Seven Tears there are references to bodies of water––tears, rivers, floods––as Philipsz adopts water as the exhibition’s guiding form. Swirls of sound sculpt a reciprocity between artist and viewer, asking and encouraging both to be and feel in this space, within this moment.

As viewers move from the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s exterior water court to the adjacent galleries, water functions as a metaphorical guidepost. The wet drips and undulations of sound form a circular trail and structure an intertwined temporality, guiding viewers to traces of memory and emotion. As viewers pass Philipsz’ paintings soaked in salt-water and filmic images of untamed wilderness, the repeated metaphor of churning, dripping waters connects viewers to St. Louis as a site of meaning and making. Sitting at the crossroads of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, St. Louis becomes a part of Phillipsz’ exhibition, the city on the rivers bringing to life Phillipsz’ engagement with the waters that both sustain and end us.

Installation view of Susan Philipsz: Seven Tears. Main Gallery, Pulitzer Arts Foundation. Photograph by Alise O’Brien © Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Alise O’Brien Photography.

The exhibition’s three sound installations generate a slippery space; a field where only a thin veil separates interiority and exteriority. These three installations serve to highlight the universality of heartbreak, of tears, of traumatic intimacy, as Philipsz uses sound to transform space into an ambiguous, affective zone where too much is shared, too much is remembered. In the Pulitzer’s entryway Philipsz’s single channel The River Cycle III plays on a loop every ten minutes. River Cycle III features Philipsz singing the lyrics to Radiohead’s 2001 “Pyramid Song” without any accompaniment. As Philipsz noted, the song’s lyrics–– “I jumped in the river, what did I see? Black-eyed angels swam with me” ––evoke the image of a life in flux, water as a medium for change.

A certain solemnity, heartbreak, is evident in Too Much I Once Lamented (2019), a five-channel sound installation Phillipsz crafted specifically for the Pulitzer’s Tadao Ando water court. Too Much is inspired by Welsh composer Thomas Tomkins’ 1622 five-part madrigal, Songs of 3,4,5 and 6 parts. The artist sings all five parts of the composition, a gesture which emphasizes the piece’s origins as a popular ballad: “too much I once lamented, while love my heart tormented.”

Seven Tears (2016), composed of seven turntables and seven vinyl records, simultaneously plays the records, each one unique tone on a continuous loop. In order to create the notes for Tears, Philipsz wet the rims of seven wine glasses with differing amounts of water, creating seven distinct sounds when she ran her fingers along the rim. These seven notes were inspired by the seven parts of English composer John Dowland’s 1604 composition, Lachrimae. According to the exhibition’s materials, Dowland’s original piece was used to mimic the flow of a tear. Philipsz combines space and sound to not only sculpt Dowland’s tears but to generate a haptic experience, an audible memory—one feels the sting of a lasting heartbreak, tears broken free.

Susan Philipsz, White Flood, 2019. 12-channel sound installation, HD film. 14:11 minutes. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York/Los Angeles, and Galerie Isabel;a Bortolozzi, Berlin. Photograph by Alise O’Brien © Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Alise O’Brien Photography.

Philipsz’ White Flood (2019) is the only piece in the show that incorporates the moving image; an element that renders it almost overwhelmingly immersive as the piece combines doubly projected archival film footage with a twelve-channel sound installation. The black and white filmic footage is originally from the 1940 film White Flood, an educational project shot in Alaska centering on the role glaciers play in the environment. Images of erupting volcanoes and storms whipping wildly through the air are interspersed between burbling rivers, crashing glaciers and workers laboring through the untamed land. The footage emphasizes the delicacy of the human condition, each worker is a small moment within the ferocity of the land. The original score accompanying the film was by German composer, Hans Eisler. Philipsz performs an intervention with Eisler’s original composition by representing each instrument from the score with a single tone, for a total of twelve notes: twelve-channels of sound. Philipsz’s score is a study of absence and presence; the tension of the staccato notes stands in stark contrast with piece’s silence, this contrast is the image of the human figure against nature’s force made manifest.

Philipsz’ Seven Tears is an exploration of both how sound shapes and creates experience from space and the universality of heartbreak. The exhibition speaks to the fluidity of memory and the cyclical nature of temporality in relation to affect; all ghosts have the uncanny ability to rise up at the moment the right bell tolls. However, it is not only the reciprocal relationship between the viewer and artist’s sadness—shared looping tears—but also space and sound’s ability to generate these connections. Sound is the potential, the message and the medium, the meeting point of who we are and what we could be.


Susan Philipsz: Seven Tears is on view at the Saint Louis Pulitzer Foundation until February 2, 2020.

Comments are closed.