Last year, artist Susan Philipsz won the Turner Prize for her sound installation Lowlands. She talks to IdeasTap about her move from sculpture to sound, and how everything is finally falling into place...
I use my own, unaccompanied singing voice in my artwork.
I think hearing a human voice, especially an untrained one, can trigger really powerful memories and associations. I used to sing a lot as a child – I was in the choir in our local Catholic church in Maryhill, Glasgow, but if I’d gone to music school, I would not be doing what I do today.
I studied sculpture at the Duncan Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee and from there went on to do an MA at Belfast, where I specialised in Fine Art. It was there that I started thinking about the physicality of singing as a sort of sculptural experience – about what happens when you fill your body with air and when you project air out, and how it can define the space you are in. Going from sculpture to sound felt to me like a very natural progression.
My first sound sculpture was in an old folks’ home in Lady Dixon Park, Belfast, in about 1994. I followed that up with a piece called Metropola where I sang a cappella versions of pop songs – Radiohead, Nirvana, the Velvet Underground – over the tannoy in a Manchester Tesco Metro.
My first big international show was Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana in 2000. I recorded a version of the old socialist anthem The Internationale and played it under a public walkway in the city centre. It was a totally career-changing show and got me a lot of attention.
Even so, for a long time it was very difficult. I was always really busy with my art, always in shows, always travelling, but I never had any money. In 2005 I was signed up by the Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery in Berlin, where I now live, and then the Tanya Bonakdar gallery in New York started representing me as well. That’s when everything changed and I realised, actually it can be done.
I was nominated for the Turner Prize last year for piece I did called Lowlands (pictured below) where I sung three very slightly different renditions of a Scottish lament and played them under bridges over the River Clyde in Glasgow. The Tate encouraged us to show the piece we were nominated for so I just moved the piece into the gallery and it just seemed to work really well.
It was a crazy time for me. I also had shows in Lisbon, at the São Paulo Biennial and a big site-specific piece in the City of London for Artangel, so I was working harder than I ever have before.
Winning the Turner has been amazing. I’ve just come back from a month of travelling here, there and everywhere, and I’ve got loads of shows coming up – a new commission for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, then shows in Mito, Moscow, Salem and Aachen in Germany.
I never tire of working with sound. Every piece is different because the work always relates to the place in which it is set. I’ve finally got to the point where I have the time and resources to do proper in-depth research for each piece, which is the bit I really love.
I think the timing for the Turner was good. Right now I’m making my most interesting work ever.
Susan Philipsz was talking to Lena Corner.
Portrait courtesy of wheelzwheeler on Flickr. Other images courtesy of Tanya Bonakdar gallery and Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art.