REVIEW: Susan Philipsz at Eastside Projects, Birmingham

Another day (yesterday actually), another gallery visit en route to University for the afternoon, another great exhibition happening in Birmingham (following on from my Lee Bul post on Tuesday), this time at Eastside Projects in Digbeth. I got delayed with my day for one reason and another…and I’m not very good when it happens as it throws me, not letting me complete what I wanted or was planned. Actually, my main reason to go to Eastside Projects was to get hold of a copy of Céline Condorelli‘s new book ‘The Company She Keeps’ (2014) (Céline is actually a founding member of Eastside Projects)…but as they only accept cash, of which I had none on me, I’ll have to go back later on today. Now, the exhibition review of ‘Broken Ensemble: War Damaged Instruments (Brass Section)’ (2014) by Susan Philipsz.

This new installation and her first solo exhibition in the UK since winning the renowned Turner Prize in 2010, is ‘a created acoustic environment’, a growing musical ensemble of battered, bullet-holed and broken instruments that have not been heard for over a century. From trumpets to bugles, horns to a bass ophicleide, the five different instruments have been recorded by Phillipsz to become their own performer – a member of ‘Broken Ensemble’ – played out through huge, white announcement speakers that have been purposefully curated in the White Cube and rather clinical gallery space to create to an all-encompassing sound experience…sound purity.

A map of the space, with a key to each of the performers, informed you of what type of instrument, with an associated history, was coming from each speaker. The instruments were damaged in Germany during various conflicts and since been conserved in museum collections. My favourite tones came from number 4 nearest the right-hand wall…the Natural Trumpet in D from Bayern, second half of the 19th Century, unsigned. Inventory number MUS 84-42 (pair). In October, the artist will add a sixth instrument to the ‘Broken Ensemble’, shifting the musical score, specifically the Balaklava Bugle used to sound the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War on 25 October 1854. At times, you could hear Philipsz voice reign through, marring with the brass, creating a slow building melody at play, like a contemporary call to the end of war or a moment of war frozen in time.

I have a high sensitivity to sound, picking up on every little thing, every fracture of white noise that lives and encompasses in a space, and it has been suggested that I have ‘misophonia’ (Selective Sound Sensitivity Syndrome). My Mom has always said that since I was little, I could hear spiders, the quick scamper of their tiny eight legs, move across a surface, which sounds ridiculous but has been proven on many occasions, amongst other sounds. If you’re lucky, you’ll see me phase out or pick up on these random noises, when it might be something you’re not even aware of…so call me out on it. This part of my make-up, this part of wordgirl, means my relationship and affinity to music, music-making, sound and sonic art has always been very different…or I think it is. Music and sound is a huge part of my life, always has been, where the most simplest tones, bass vibrations or sonic reverberation makes me quietly content and silenced…sampled everyday sounds do the same too. So in the case of Phillipsz’s installation, I got very much lost…lost in the brass instrument echoes as if a meditative practice, like a call to prayer, creating a sense of focus and clarity for that moment in time (although I could, in part, hear shuffles and chatter in the gallery space which cut through my experience on occasion like a hot knife through butter). I wanted the performers to be louder, hitting my ear drums with harsh resonation to echo the historical intensity of what these instruments ultimately stood for…war and conflict. Consuming me…go and let it consume you.

Philipsz is dedicated to the exploration of the psychological and sculptural potential of sound in relation to unique sites and the individual. Using recordings, usually predominantly of her own voice, the artist creates immersive environments of architecture and song that heighten the visitor’s engagement with their surroundings while inspiring thoughtful introspection. In more recent years, she has investigated, reimagined and rearranged musical literary sources, and specific historical constellations. Born in 1965 in Glasgow, Philipsz currently lives and works in Berlin.

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 1

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 2

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 3

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 4

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 5

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 6

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 7

Susan Philipsz Broken Ensemble 8

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