I See a Darkness is an immersive sound installation by the Scottish artist Susan Philipsz, combining three different songs. It begins with Philipsz’s ‘a cappella’ rendition of the song I See a Darkness by the American singer and songwriter Will Oldham (born 1970), which gives the installation its name. Sung as a call and response duet, the song is split between two speakers which call out to each other across the gallery space. Following this, an early piano piece by the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875–1937), Pavane for a Dead Princess 1899, plays from a single speaker. Finally, Philipsz’s interpretation of the nineteenth-century Neapolitan barcarolle, Santa Lucia, emanates from four individual speakers. The piece lasts seven minutes and thirty-two seconds and is on a continuous loop. Positioned in a darkened gallery space, the seven speakers are spot lit, casting shadows onto the surrounding walls and floor. The position of the speakers can be adapted to spaces of different sizes and configurations. The work was produced in an edition of three; Tate’s copy is number two in the edition.
Philipsz’s works use sound, and specifically her own voice, to create installations that explore the relationship between sound and architecture. Her work stems from an interest in how sound can define architectural space and how its emotive and psychological properties can alter our experiences of different spaces. I See a Darkness brings together allusions to the lives of two different Lucias: the Italian saint Lucia, to whom the popular tune Santa Lucia is dedicated and who represents an allegory of light and vision, her name coming from the Latin lux for light; and writer James Joyce’s daughter, Lucia Joyce (1907–1982), who danced to Ravel’s Pavane when she was a dancer with the group Les Six de rythme et couleur. Lucia Joyce’s tragic life – she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent most of her adult life in mental institutions until she died in St. Andrews Hospital, Northampton – had a strong impact on Philipsz. In I See a Darkness, Lucia becomes a metaphorical ‘light’ that leads the public through the dark space. The music defines the space and guides the visitor around the installation, drawing attention to the spatial and sculptural characteristics of sound. Philipsz has explained how all these references came together while she was on a journey across Italy:
I visited Naples and looking out onto the Bay of Naples I remembered that the song [Santa Lucia] refers to the district in Naples called the Borgo Santa Lucia and I began to realise the potential of the song again. On my way to Naples I stopped in Rome where I came across a book about James Joyce’s daughter Lucia Joyce. This was to become my book for the journey. I was surprised to discover that she was very important in Joyce’s development as a writer and that he frequently refers to her in his work. She was to become his muse and was always under his watchful eye. Lucia took after her father; she loved to dance as much as Joyce loved to sing and it seemed that she was destined for great things … the more I read about Lucia Joyce the more I began to realise what a tragedy her life was … Santa Lucia came from Syracuse, Sicily. She has always been described as having beautiful eyes. Lucia Joyce, however, inherited her eyes from her mother’s side of the family. Nora Barnacle’s sister Peg had a strong cast in one eye … Santa Lucia will always present light. However, Lucia Joyce’s story is one of a bright light slipping into obscurity and darkness … In the exhibition space a disembodied voice coming from the darkness might allude to the forgotten Lucia, light giver and guide in dark places.
(Jarla Partilager 2008, pp.8–9.)
I See a Darkness has been exhibited at Jarla Partilager, Stockholm in 2008, and at Tanya Bonakdar, New York in 2010.
Susan Philipsz: There Is Nothing Left Here, exhibition catalogue, Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela 2007.
Susan Philipsz: I See a Darkness, exhibition catalogue, Jarla Partilager, Stockholm 2008.
Sara Arrhenius, ‘Night Walks Grand, Yet Silent’, in Susan Philipsz: You Are Not Alone, Cologne 2014, pp. 58–59.
Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.