In 2010, Susan Philipsz recorded herself singing three different versions of the 16th century Scottish lament “Lowlands Away”, and installed speakers beneath three bridges over the River Clyde in her native Glasgow to play them. It made Philipsz the first Turner Prize nominee to use sound installation, and accordingly, Lowlands’ placement in the Turner prize exhibition was followed by an onslaught of negative criticism. The Independent’s Michael Glover called Lowlands “hype-cum hogwash,” and The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment condemned those who enjoyed the piece to “the ninth circle of art hell.”
The most cogent reason why Philipsz’s sound art could rise above it’s haters enough to win the Turner Prize in 2010 was its fitting immersion within it’s environment. Lowlands was performed in a place that made sense: a Scottish folk song, directly involved with its romantic Glaswegian setting. It was evocative of time, and place; the sound felt like it belonged somewhere. By the time the critics got to it, the piece had been transferred into a gallery space, looped in an empty room at the Tate Modern. When placed in a gallery, Philipsz’s sound pieces become vacant and out of place, which is why The Distant Sound at Tanya Bonakdar fails.
The doors of the gallery are animated by two speakers that play atonal, infrequent, and seemingly random string sounds to the passing public, attempting to invite them in with sounds that are drowned out by the West Side Highway. On entry, two adjacent walls in the main gallery space are embellished with variously sized round speakers, that again play fleeting instrumental sounds that get lost within the gallery space. The soundwalls, supposedly playing the disassembled horns, strings, and chimes from Austrian composer Franz Schreker’s 1910 opera Der Ferne Klang, are accompanied by a diptych of large blurred photographs of telephone lines, taken by Philipsz on a train journey from Glasgow to Dundee. A train journey from Glasgow to Dundee, coupled with isolated sounds from a 1910 Austrian opera? We don’t get it either.
Adjoining the main gallery space is film footage, shown on a small TV screen, capturing the slow screech of a train eventually stopping on some train tracks in Berlin. It features some more fleeting glockenspiel-esque sounds that don’t belong anywhere, or mean anything to anyone other than Philipsz. According to the exhibition’s press release, which I had to refer to in order to understand what the hell was going on here, the sounds of the train station reference the displaced emigre culture of the mid-20th century which Schreker himself was not a part of, but contemporary with. Hmmm.
Although Philipsz succeeds in disassembling Schreker’s score into separate instruments for every speaker to make a digital orchestra, (which is mildly exciting for sound art), there is still a major problem with The Distant Sound. Philipsz has brought what seems like a load of unrelated images, video and sounds into the Tanya Bonakdar hoping they’ll have some sort of dialogue, and instead they fit together as dissonantly as the shrieking violins coming from the soundwalls. If the sounds were immersed into an environment that related to Franz Schreker or his work, then the relationship created between sound and place would be kind of interesting, or at least commonsensical. It seems like the only function the soundwalls serve is to make the gallery walls “talk” to each other, which isn’t challenging anybody.