BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Reviews | 22 MAR 17
Featured in
Issue 186

Susan Philipsz

Bonniers Konsthall, Stockholm, Sweden

BY Timotheus Vermeulen in Reviews | 22 MAR 17

Susan Philipsz’s solo exhibition at the Bonniers Konsthall spans four rooms of differing sizes and qualities – some large and bright, others small and dim. In a sense, however, ‘Lost in Space’ covers far more rooms. In fact, you might say, it covers all the rooms we inhabit, from that grandest of salons we call the universe, our solar system and beyond, to the most intimate of spaces: our bedrooms, our minds, the chambers of our beating hearts.

The exhibition features newly commissioned projects and past works. Best-known is the artist’s moving acapella rendition of David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust (2001). Philipsz’s voice is serious and tender, like that of a teenager, at once confident and shy, uncertain, strangely upbeat at times and downhearted at others. It is also noticeably untrained or, at least, not trained to perfection, straining to hit the notes, struggling to keep form – but persevering. In the process, toiling pitch after toiling pitch, the artist adds texture to and thickens this auditory-space with echoes of the bedroom of one’s youth, with its dreams of Bowie and Ziggy, adventure and space travel – whilst simultaneously suggesting that the world we occupy is finite, won’t orbit forever. This feeling of finitude resonates as much through the artist’s physical absence – a spot-lit circle in the middle of the room is conspicuously empty – as through Bowie’s recent departure.

The centrepiece of the exhibition, the extraordinary A Single Voice (2017), repeats and reinforces this duality. The installation consists of two overlapping parts. Adapting, or reworking, Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s opera Aniara (1959), which tells the story of a spaceship taking flight after the earth’s resources are exhausted, only to get lost en route to Mars, Philipsz and violinist Leila Akhmatova replay only the first violin. Recorded note by note, in separate sessions, each note emerges from a different speaker at a different point in the room. The effect is manifold. As the artist has described it: in one sense, the effect is as if the soundtrack were being played in another room, displaced, decontextualized – like knocks on a wall or an SOS signal. Here, space is extended beyond its architectural parameters into various behinds and beyonds, each note intimating further depths and distances. Another consequence is that the space itself seems pluralized, textured, diffracted, since each of the notes, each of the speakers, draws you towards it, momentarily, only to drag you in a different direction, then another and so on. The soundscape here at once opens space up and binds it –
a sense, truly, of being lost in space, having everywhere and nowhere to go.

‘Lost in Space’ is as much a curatorial achievement as it is an artistic one, and is Sara Arrhenius’s last project before leaving the directorship of Bonniers Konsthall. Each of the installations shines extraordinarily bright in relationship to the others. If Ziggy Stardust centrifugally breathes intimacy across its non-place, Radio Star (2017) centripetally sucks the whole universe into a TV screen, resounding and depicting pulsar waves as radio waves and white noise. Similarly, where the installation A Single Voice disperses sound, in the accompanying video recording – a first for the artist – of the violinist performing one of the tones, the camera orbits around the musician, locating the sound in her body. To be lost in space, here, is to be swept up and ground down by this pulsation, in this space that beats, that swells and shrinks, opens and binds.

Lead image: Susan Philipsz, A Single Voice, 2017, performance documentation. Courtesy: the artist, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York and Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin

Timotheus Vermeulen is professor in Media, Culture and Society at the University of Oslo.