Turner prize: Sound as sculpture

This year’s Turner Prize was awarded to Scottish artist Susan Philipsz for her sound sculpture Lowlands. Philipsz used a sixteenth century Scottish lament about a sailor who drowns, but returns to give a final farewell to his loved one – recording all three existing versions in her own voice played under different bridges over the river Clyde in her birthplace Glasgow.

Susan Philipsz at the Turner Prize 2010 ceremony

Philipsz, who now lives in Berlin, is intrigued by the way sound can be transformed into architectural and visual images in the listener. As you walk on the underside of these bridges – ‘the dark side’ as she calls them – you catch bits of one song, merging with bits of the next under the following bridge. In the gallery setting the three songs are broadcast through different loudspeakers.

This is the first time the Turner prize has been awarded to a sound sculpture – perhaps a recognition by the visual art establishment of the interconnectedness of the senses.

Two interesting aspects of this prize are worth noting. One feature is the visual content of sound. Syesthesia, where a person involuntarily transfers one form sensory stimulus, say auditory, into another such as colour, has long been known in neuro-psychiatry.  Many composers had such perceptions.

The Russian composer Scriabin, for instance, tried to convey this sensation by having various colours projected during performances of his music, and added an olfactory element by releasing particular smells during his orchestral work Poeme d’Extase.

The French composer Olivier Messiaen took this a step further. Many of his works have specific colour titles such as Couleurs de la cité céleste. In his Treatise of Rhythm, Colour and Birdsong, Messiaen wrote descriptions of the colours of certain chords, sometimes in great detail: blue-violet rocks, speckled with little grey cubes, cobalt blue, deep Prussian blue, highlighted by a bit of violet-purple, gold, red, ruby, and stars of mauve, black and white. Blue-violet is dominant. Nearer to our time Andy Warhol worked closely with Velvet Underground in a similar light.

We can also approach Philipsz’s sound sculpture from the point of view of the modernist movement for abstraction. It began, partly in response to photography, by Gustave Courbet in his pallet knife paintings, Claude Monet in his flattening of forms and Paul Gauguin in moving colour away from its natural roots.

As Richard Brettell wrote in Modern Art 1851-1929, this was a process whereby the subject matter was pushed back and the artist and viewer brought forward. It was, as he said, a move to introduce more of the painter and more of the imagination of the viewer into a work. Thus the road to abstraction was paved.

The fauves went on to place colour at the centre. Henry Matisse’s The red Studio (1911) merges floor and wall into one glorious red. Robert Delaunay (France 1885-1941), Frantisek Kupka (Czech 1871-1957, Piet Mondrian (Dutch 1872-1944) and many others, all contemporaries and all having spent some time in Paris, abstracted colour further. The ultimate abstraction of colour was its total elimination in the all-white or all-black canvas.

The Russians Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Kasimir Malevich (1878-1936) introduces Slav mysticism into abstract art. Malevich with Lazar El Lissitsky (1890-1941), Mikhail Matiushin (1861-1934) and others in the Constructivists revolutionary artistic group around the Bolsheviks used abstract art as a tool in revolutionary propaganda and the building of a revolutionary society. El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’ (1920) became an iconic propaganda poster. Malevich hung his almost all-white canvases in special ways in galleries as a precursor to installation art.

Mysticism, as well as the interrelationship of sound and colour, was a theme taken up by the American artist Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). The Americans also developed another aspect of abstraction – and of colour and emotion – in the form of abstract expressionism.

This peaked in the paintings of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) where juxtaposed shades of colour draw the viewer into the canvas thus into creating an emotional state – an inner painting or sculpture. Malevich’s monochrome paintings, hung in abstract architectural forms in a gallery, or Rothko’s merging colour forms, are but one step away from Lowlands where Philipsz has completely removed all shape and colour, leaving sound as the medium for reconstructing sculptors and paintings in the imagination.

When critiques found figures in Kandinsky’s self-declared abstractions, they were not mistaken. Abstraction allows the reign of imagination. Philipsz takes this logic further by totally eliminating the visual input and allowing the listener to imagine form and colour. In this she has also completed the amalgamation of painting and sculpture started by Marcel Duchamp in the Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (1915-23)

Philipsz has taken abstract art to its logical conclusion. By choosing an old lament and suspending the sound under a bridge in the dark underbelly of Glasgow she has already introduced a mystical element that existed in Kandinsky, Miro and more latterly in O’Keefe. And she has recreated the special relationship with sound as the creator of images and defining space.

‘Even in a gallery you become more aware of the space you are in,’ Philipsz said at the Tate Modern as she picked up the Turner prize. ‘You also become more aware of yourself,’ she added.

By putting an untrained voice in a public place, without the river and of shadows beneath a bridge, the mind is focused on the music. The effect is as the artist predicted: ‘Strange, like putting something private into a very public context’ … where the words ‘will be more focused and more intimate’ and ‘very visceral,’ as she noted. As a viewer, you cannot help but be affected by it.

Clearly the judges agreed. It was a good choice and the Tate should be congratulated to have the vision and courage to recognise this.

Philipsz picked up the £25,000 Turner prize presented by fashion designer Miuccia Prada at the Tate Modern in London on 7 December. She was awarded for the presentations of Lowlands at the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and Long Gone in the group exhibition Mirrors at MARCO Museo de Arte Comtemporánea de Vigo in Spain.

Guest blogger Mohsen Shahmanesh

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