Modern Painters | Susan Philipsz
Susan Philipsz Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin | February 1 - May 4 2014
The former railway station turned contemporary art museum has undergone some spectacular changes in the past few years. For Carsten Holler's Soma, 2011, reindeer lived in the historical hall for months; Tomas Saraceno created gardens for his utopian Cloud Cities, 2011/2012; and Anthony McCall’s Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture, 2012, transformed the space into a science-fiction light sculpture. But it’s the Berlin-based, internationally acclaimed Scottish artist Susan Philipsz, widely known for her location-specific sound art installations, who takes a risk by leaving the monumental Hamburger Bahnhof completely empty. Her latest piece, Part File Score, is entirely devoted to concentrated listening.
Philipsz stages the eventful life of Jewish composer Hanns Eisler, 1898–1962, who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s from Berlin. He was deported in 1948 for being a Communist. Part File Score is a three-part spatial dispersion of tones from a film soundtrack by Eisler, accompanied by 12 prints in which parts of the composer’s scores are superimposed with pages from his FBI files. The blackened and scratched notes and files each narrate a different, moving story: Which music did he write while the FBI was tapping his phone and tracing all his steps?
Everyone entering the exhibition becomes a participant: It’s impossible to remain a detached visitor when the soothing sounds of a prelude strike you. Following a strategy Philipsz last applied to Study for Strings, a work she presented at dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012, each tone of the compositions was recorded separately in the studio. The clarity of every sound creates a certain form of awareness, as if the perception of yourself and your surroundings has changed. While museumgoers lay on the floor, the notes travel through the entire hall—at times it seems as if the corners are talking to each other. Small breaks in the music create the illusion that the cello, trumpet, or piano has quietly left the room for a moment.
This individual consciousness and continuous redefinition of sound and its localization in space is exactly what Philipsz, the 2010 recipient of the Turner prize, wishes to achieve in her work. In Part File Score she succeeds. As the museums architectonic structure and the dynamic sounds depict separation and displacement, they relate to the building’s former life as a train station, a place of departure and arrival, of parting and return.
Published in Modern Painters #May 2014