Susan Philipsz: The Shortest Shadow

Mon, Oct 19, 2009

We all knew the Susan Philipsz installation was opening soon. We had done our best to ensure that the paperwork was in order; that promotional materials and messages were in the works; and that we had the appropriate equipment and digital files to play the work to the artist's specifications. Everything was in place so that our (stellar!) technical services department could install the work in advance of opening night. Busy on our computers one day in early September, we suddenly heard the gentle, soothing voice of Susan Philipsz singing "The Banks of the Ohio" outside our windows. Realizing that no one in our office was playing the preview DVD, we went to the window to listen while our colleagues tested the technical aspects outside prior to Philipsz's arrival. Witnessing the first set of reactions was just one of the many interesting elements about the project. Some passersby looked around in confusion, others stopped to listen, others inquired and still others protested.

The installation Sunset Song (2004) is an 8-minute loop: approximately 3 of those 8 minutes consist of Philipsz's tranquil voice; the other 5 minutes consist of silence. As the sun rises, the work gets louder, thanks to the solar attenuator attached to the volume controls. Placed outside in the walkway between the Wexner Center and the Oval, the work will get progressively softer as the winter season approaches. Standing in the warm September sun, we listened and listened again, tweaking and adjusting to ensure that everything was just right. We found ourselves listening closely, as we hope visitors and pedestrians in the area will do, to try to decipher the lyrics to her song.

Suddenly, Philipsz's voice sounds haunting and ghostly rather than soothing and comforting. Although the song's tune is still melodic and pleasant, its timeless tale of love gone awry gives it an eerie resonance. The morbid narrative about the murder of a woman by her soon-to-be-husband (and of a man by his bride-to-be) strikes a tragic chord—and recalls too many stories from the news.

Also on view as part of Susan Philipsz: The Shortest Shadowis The Dead(2000), which will screen before select 35mm films this fall (head to the exhibition's web page for more information). Similar in spirit, this work truly relies on its environment. As the theater gets dark, the only light is the low glow of the black screen at the front of the room. Soon after, the artist's voice begins filling the space. The filmgoers are left to their own thoughts while the narrative of another haunting song plays out in their heads rather than on the screen.

It was a pleasure to work with Susan Philipsz on this exhibition. She takes her work wherever she goes, singing to herself while we waited to be seated for lunch or rode in the car on the way to visit the Ohio State University Libraries' Logan Elm Press—which deftly printed the broadsides created to accompany this project. We look forward to seeing how this artist will explore sound and song through future installations, and we are delighted to have the opportunity to bring her work to Columbus this fall.