Susan Philipsz: Separated Strings
On ViewTanya Bonakdar Gallery
January 12–February 25, 2023
Study for Strings Sokol Terezín (2023) is melancholic, beautiful, unsentimental, and elegiac. Comprising two screens installed in Tanya Bonakdar’s downstairs gallery and set at an angle to each other, between and around which the viewer can pass, the film is almost entirely a slow passage through an empty building. The accompanying sound is of cello and viola recordings played in the building. For this film, Susan Philipsz restaged one of her earlier pieces from 2012, Study for Strings, presented at Documenta 13. It draws from the life of Jewish Czech composer Pavel Haas (1899–1944): in 1941, Haas was deported to Terezín/Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic, where he wrote Study for String Orchestra. The piece was subsequently performed as part of the propaganda film Theresienstadt. Ein Dokumentarfilm aus dem jüdischen Siedlungsgebiet (1944), a false portrayal of the benign accommodation of Jews by the Nazi state. After this performance at the Terezín concert hall, Haas and the majority of the cast were sent to Auschwitz and murdered. The isolated cello and viola parts are heard here as the camera approaches and moves into and through the actual site of the original performance. The prosaicness of the walls and rooms—sites of the extreme cruelty that was the context for the 1944 performance and now occupied by that music once again so many years later—makes apprehension of events that are impossible to adequately represent or approach without the distorting lens of metaphor. This is a filmic experience, but much removed from narrative cinema or abstract concrete cinema.
In the upstairs gallery, Philipsz again uses Haas’s composition. Study for Strings (Violin) (2018) presents only the violin part of Study for String Orchestra—a violinist playing each tone recorded separately. This recording is reproduced on a 12-channel sound system, column wall speakers along two adjacent walls, eight on one wall and four on the other in an otherwise empty space. The sound is tangible, focused, individuated, physical, and present—temporal and passing in resonating through the shape of the room. The effect manifested is of both distance and proximity, of separation and closeness. A paradox surely, but such a successful dismantling of assumptions or structures gets us closer to communications that evade most use of language. The gallery’s next room includes a recent work, Slow Fresh Fount (2023). A single polished steel barrel sits centrally, while a single wire across the floor connects to a small speaker resting atop the barrel from which we hear a poem by English poet Ben Jonson (1572–1637) that portrays tears as dripping water and melting snow. The voice in the poem is that of Echo, who in mourning the death of her love Narcissus wastes away to become an echo only. The poem is actually satirical in tone, but the artist is here perhaps ironic in using a polished, reflective oil drum as a substitution for Echo’s fountain, the replications of the barrel and its amplification of the recorded voice recalling the setting of the Greek myth. Philipsz uses sound to physically engage with space, somehow like an audio sculptor; it’s a sensitivity that enables her to explore emotion, history, and myth, embodying through sound and place those themes in such a way as to make them accessible and intimate to experience in the here and now—whether in a museum, gallery, or on other occasions, a site already existing in our environment.