New York

Susan Philipsz

Many artists who use appropriation do so as a strategy for ironic commentary, parody, or critical reflection. Susan Philipsz is not among them. The reason has to do with her medium as much as her attitude: The forty-three-year-old Scottish artist is known for her a cappella renditions of well-known songs, recordings of which she typically installs in unfurnished, sometimes outdoor, locales. (She has played her “reinterpretations” of songs by such bands as Echo & the Bunnymen in the emptied galleries of the Malmö Konsthall, and a barcarole from the opera The Tales of Hoffman under a bridge in Münster.) For “Here Comes Everybody,” her New York gallery debut, Philipsz continued this tradition, recording two separate versions of “Trees and Flowers,” a twee 1983 song of agoraphobia and anomie by the Glaswegian punk duo Strawberry Switchblade.

The exhibition was installed in two rooms on the gallery’s second level. In the first room, dark and hung with black felt curtains, a single speaker projected Philipsz’s plaintive voice singing terse lyrics of contempt and entrapment: “For I hate the trees / And I hate the flowers / And I hate the buildings / And the way they tower / Over me / Can’t you see?” In the adjacent room, brightly lit by an elongated skylight, three speakers each piped unique renditions of Philipsz’s alternate version—in which the artist dispensed with lyrics and sang the song using sol-fa syllables—constructing a loose harmony within the space. The difference between the two rooms was stark: One was closed and private, an occasion for a sort of auricular confession; the other was open and transcendent, a communal mass in a melodious tongue.

Inevitably, various extradiegetic noises would break in: A phone would ring or a truck would drive by. While none of these extemporaneous sounds was part of the artwork per se, their intrusion drew attention to the artist’s permissiveness with regard to natural “pollution.” The only light in the exhibition was that which filtered through the windows and skylight. No attempt was made to isolate Philipsz’s music from external stimuli—or the rest of the gallery from her music, confounding typical architectonics of center and periphery.

Philipsz’s work recalls that of other artists who have recently employed karaoke-like reprises of pop songs, most notably Candice Breitz and Phil Collins. But in contrast to their work, Philipsz’s rendering of the Glaswegian lamentation seems less invested in the politics of global pop culture and more concerned with constructing an experiential framework for an intimate, even transportive, encounter. While her choice of song was undoubtedly significant—written, as it was, by a band from Philipsz’s own hometown, and articulating anxieties about day and night, confinement and open space—the precise motivation behind the selection seemed, strangely, almost beside the point. Left with nothing concrete to grab on to, the listener became the subject, object, and everything in between.

If, in the dark room, some people occasionally approached the lone speaker, it was perhaps to deflect the peculiar discomfort at being suddenly alone in a gallery with no “active” visual stimuli. Philipsz’s installations look bare-bones (leading some to draw comparisons with the work of Michael Asher), and it can be difficult to discern whether it is the total environment or the transitory song that constitutes the actual “work.” But in either case, the establishment of a particular mise-en-scène was here a vehicle not for institutional critique but rather for its opposite: the construction of a meditative space, spectacular in its very sparseness, within which to commune with music.

David Velasco