First, you slow your walk though the museum.
Why? Because of certain sounds, a certain pace, long drawn-out notes, with long gaps between, that create a choreography for all who hear them.
An artist’s voice is being heard, albeit translated,mediated, asserting itself into this prestigious, almost regal space. The Duveen Galleries, named after the swashbuckling dealer and donor Duveen who made a huge fortune through buying and selling art (see link to an excellent Duveen biograpy below).
The utilitarian, slightly retro-chic of the public address horns proclaim and enhance the presence of sound. Their visual prominence is perhaps unnecessary, but provides a value, an optical reference. They add shape, colour, and a certain historical design value to the otherwise disembodied sound.
To be honest, you cannot be 100% certain that the sound does emit from these speakers. It has in fact long concerned you that many sound artists don’t rapidly depart from what is surely the most obvious, immediate and therefore immediately deconstructible element related to their specialised field of art – the speaker and its style, its presence, its material value, its aesthetic? In short, if you are making art with sound why compromise or curtail that expansive enquiry, liberated as it is from the tyranny of the eye, by providing the visual reference of the source of the sound in the form of the speaker?
Another, quite different sound begins to build like a wave. It is a school group approaching, muttering stepping, bustling its way, growing in volume, expanding its details as it does so. Then it has passed, leaving the trace of a slow Doppler effect on your short-term memory. Perhaps Susan Philipsz has activated the space, sensitised both it and your own hearing so that you are more attuned to all sounds, to sound per se.
Your eyes, following your penned notes on the notebook page, are clearly declining, weakening. A symptom of middle-age, 20 years of reading and writing, as a writer, academic, lecturer, and an increasingly enthusiastic and avid reader. Your eyes! Your eyes! Your once-perfect eyes! What a tragedy. Who will compensate you for their loss? You need to wear spectacles now more and more of the time, to complete more and more tasks – reading a food label, untying a shoelace knot. Even the notes you are making right now appear fuzzy, but thankfully the sounds you hear remain sharp.
They may be the notes of a trumpet. But playing what exactly? You hear similar notes, an occasional change of note, a simple harmony, no discord, but sometimes a shift of timbre, a slight variation in force as if the tongue had twisted in the mouthpiece of the instrument.
These sounds fills the entire space, albeit subtly, enigmatically, cautiously. The last time anyone really FILLED these enormous galleries was when Phylidda Barlow and a team of assistants constructed a massive, mad, material installation here. But this is more elegant and economical, it all seems so clear, simplified and resolved. It almost cleans the very air.
Are we ‘tired of seeing’ as the dissident Surrealist Georges Bataille once claimed? Jake and Dinos Chapman used this phrase at the launch of their career, and they have persisted in producing what might be thought of as insults to the eye, making objects that try to map the limits of visual value and perhaps require us to turn to other senses upon encountering their art. They may of course have been following the brinkmanship of Marcel Duchamp who claimed he aimed to make ‘anti-retinal’ art.
Your eyes survey like regents, the kings of the sense, unless, of course you are deprived of sight, lose your sight, have sight impaired, close your eyes, sleep or otherwise enter utter darkness.Then, sound ‘illuminates’ the unknown, giving shape and form, pace and duration to otherwise formless experience.
Nicolas Bourriaud once referred to History as ‘the last, undiscovered continent’ but perhaps artists could ascribe this epithet to the realm of sound? Spoken words, poems read aloud, the orchestra, the rock band, rain on the roof, the muttering of the crowd and the screams of the underground train. The near-silence of those who today make their way through the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain, most appearing oblivious but perhaps moving slightly slower than they otherwise would, perhaps enjoying the fact that this art is everywhere, addressing everyone and every thing, and therefore perhaps more public, more more ours, as well as less demanding, less imposing, more generous. accommodating and kind.
How would you describe, evaluate, compare these sounds, this sound? Minimal, slight, soothing, modest, vaguely valedictory, pieces of broken music perhaps, sonic shards fallen out of their proper place. Possibly even fragments of ‘The Last Post’ you think, and therefore, maybe a centenary composition marking 2015’s memories of WW1, memories of ruin, ruins of memory, war.
Sound seems to encourage you to look upwards, as if at the invisible air. It makes you somehow hopeful and open. It reminds you that you too are a hall, filled with air and echoing internally.
Is the sound perhaps live, or recorded? Are there hidden trumpet players gathered somewhere near behind a curtain, around a microphone, and connected to these speakers? Ears ask questions that eyes do not.
Another school group passes, more quietly this time. Some of the children are experimenting with walking, jumping the lines in the Terrazzo floor or trying to walk on their heels. As you turn to leave you recall your own favourite piece of ‘sound art.’ It is titled: ‘Pentecost’ about 1310-18, and attributed (by the National Gallery) to ‘Giotto and workshop.’ You can see by the body language of the depicted passers by that they are leaning in to listen to the apostles acquiring the gift of speaking in tongues.
The grand, classical columns and stone walls of the Duveen galleries harbour and house the sound of Susan Phiilpsz’ work, allowing, enabling it, protecting it from the chaos of the nearby bombastic Embankment and Pimlico traffic. They provide a noble vessel into which the sound repeatedly inserts itself as a series of softly elongated piping pronouncements.
You are glad to note that there is no visible explanation ‘about’ the work as you leave. You only know that it is Philipsz work because you saw it being constructed during your previous visit to Tate Britain. Art is best encountered, initially at least, with no explanatory notes. But now, having finished your weekly Blog post, you go to the Tate site and find the following – relevant and, in a way welcome – Tate statement, uncannily confirming some of the immediate impressions you have shared above.
“War Damaged Musical Instruments by Turner Prize-winning artist Susan Philipsz was specially commissioned by 14–18 Now, the official cultural programme for the WW1 Centenary commemorations. The work is a sound installation, which features recordings of British and German instruments which have been damaged by war. The notes recorded are based upon the tones of the military bugle call ‘The Last Post’, a tune that sounded at the end of a battle signaling to soldiers that it was safe to return to base but the tune is fragmented to such an extent that it is practically unrecognisable. Philipsz has worked with the architecture of the space devising a sequence of sounds that travel the length of the Duveen galleries, creating an immersive and contemplative experience. “