The galleries echo with call and response, from war to war, place to place. The sounds recall last breaths and death rattles, slow exhalations. As much as distant wars, fallen armies and martial music, it is hard not to think of other musics, other times. It is impossible not to think of the soaring, melancholy sounds created by Miles Davis and Albert Ayler. A bass ophicleide from Munich recalls the slurs and growls of the trombonist Roswell Rudd.
Adrian Searle’s dramatic description of Susan Philipsz’s WAR DAMAGED MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS at the Tate Britain vividly expresses the profound effect this installation can have on the visitor.
Sounds are calling down the 86m-long Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain, from 14 speakers mounted high on the walls. Otherwise, the space is empty.
You can’t predict which speaker will next come to life with plangent, mournful music. Each of the speakers plays fragments of the Last Post, performed on brass and woodwind instruments all mangled by war. Sometimes it’s a sharp bugle note, sometimes a sonorous gasp, sometimes a noise like wind in a drainpipe.
It was not the juxtaposition of sounds with damaged relics of war which initially so moved me and drew me back time after time, but the mournful quality of those sounds interacting with that vast space. It seemed that they gave the space a strange enveloping physical presence that was a paradoxical weightless substance.
I could never stand still in that long, high domed gallery. I had to walk around, hearing and feeling the sounds – mostly single notes; occasionally two notes blending in an unexpected harmony – as they were played from random speakers, points near and far. The sounds both defined the space, filled it, and the space gave them life.
The backstory of the instruments creating the sounds enriches and intensifies the melancholy mood of the piece. The notes become like ghostly visitations from the past.
Dr Linda Schädler conveys some of the effect of Philipsz’s work in her exhibition essay:
She is able to evoke a feeling for the past. It is a feeling of mourning for the lost ones triggered by a rearranged song composed in the eighteenth century and played with instruments that are historical remnants, or rather: indexical traces of the past. In Philipsz’ work, the sound clearly becomes an echo not only of a bygone age but also of the feelings of a past epoque… Without hearing words or explanations, the spectator is touched and moved by the sheer presence of the hesitant and vulnerable tones. Nevertheless, there is not only an audible frame of reference to the belligerent past. We can hear the tones in the here and now of the Duveen Galleries – a place with a tragic past too. The Duveen Galleries suffered severe damage during the Second World War, when a bomb hit the building and brought down the gallery roof in 1940.
Space is clearly a major inspiration for the artist as Rhiannon Starr explains:
As a child, Philipsz sang in a local Catholic choir with her sisters, and as a teenager she joined a militant-socialist African choir. However, Philipsz doesn’t read or write music, never having undertaken formal training. Instead, she studied sculpture at the University of Dundee and then at the University of Ulster in Belfast. ‘I was making sculptures that explored inner body space,’ Philipsz says. This fostered an interest in the physicality of singing, such as the way the diaphragm expels breath from the lungs. ‘I also began to think about the physicality of projecting my voice out into a space and filling that space with sound,’ she explains.
I cannot recommend this exhibition highly enough. Unfortunately it ends on 3 April, but if you are in the vicinity, make sure you catch it.
Here is a short video taken by a visitor:
Here is Philipsz talking about a very similar but smaller project:-
Further details about the exhibition are here. It was commissioned by 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions.