Susan Philipsz at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York

by Danny Kopel, October 2012

Before you even enter Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, Susan Philipsz’s The Distant Sound makes it’s spectral presence felt, or rather heard. Arranged in a tidy row, two speaker cones emit strange, atonal sounds. They are not completely foreign. We make them out to be musical instruments; a lingering note is superseded by another one, without attention to melody or harmony and without bearing any relation between sounds. In an act of announcement, a literal and figurative sounding of the horns, this mystifying setup pulls you off the street and beckons you into the gallery.

Inside, this effect is multiplied. Along the eastern and western walls of the main gallery the same speaker cones reappear, many of them dotting the walls in a spatial arrangement so seemingly haphazard that one questions if this plotting of points must means something. Therein lies the attraction and pull of Philipsz installation: it’s vague code, it’s apparently secret language. Walking in, you are enveloped in a lush soundscape as if you had happened on an orchestra tuning up before a great performance, separate instruments—horns, strings, chimes—making separate sounds without regard to one another. You wait, in vain, for that climactic moment when it will all congeal into something your ear will recognize as music. That moment is never delivered.

You think perhaps this must be some Cagian composition and hold out for even a moment of accidental musicality. This is the rationalizing mind in a desperate attempt to assemble, to organize, to understand, to make familiar. Besides evoking a certain uncertain quality, this is one of the great successes of The Distant Sound, the artist’s challenging of the ingrained patterns of the mind. Philipsz offers instead an opportunity to bask in what is simply sensory, not mathematical, musical or even sensical. Perhaps we are not entirely to blame for anticipating like this, since we are experiencing parts of a whole. The installation picks apart and in effect abstracts Franz Schreker’s 1910 opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound). Our anxiety is a kind of phantom pain.

Traversing the space, another dynamic unfolds. The sound shifts from general din to the single note (re)produced by the speaker horn you find yourself closest to. The effect is similar to Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet, which isolates each individual voice in a choir to it’s own single speaker, forty of them arranged in a circle around the perimeter of the room. Cardiff’s piece has made PS1 it’s home since January 2001, a time when Philipsz herself was in residence at MoMA’s second space. During the residency Philipsz produced Bird by Bird, a film on view in the small back gallery. In it, trains approach and depart a Berlin platform in the night and on occasion a conductor makes announcements in German over the loudspeaker. The whooshing, the sounds of the train’s comings and goings, and the disembodied voice spill into the main gallery and compound the mystery of it all with their sense of foreign estrangement.

Back in the main gallery and on it’s north wall, two photographs of electric cables suspended over a landscape—Philipsz journey from Glasgow to Dundee—preside over the array of speaker cones dialoguing with each other on opposite ends of the room. It echoes the preponderance of string instruments that offer one quivering note after another into the space. With these photographs and their associative power, it becomes clear that Philipsz hears sound even when it is not there. Objects, any objects, can have their own sonorous evocations. This synaesthetic playfulness again challenges the limits of our conscious minds, the self-willed parameters of what we are willing and able to experience. For all the apparent dissonance of this mise en scene—the confusion of sounds and different media, of the visual and the auditory—The Distant Sound coheres in this poetic landscape, subject to it’s own law of lawlessness, it’s own unpredictable rhythms.

Susan Philipsz: The Distant Sound
6 September—20 October, 2012
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery
New York