Walking through the Duveen Galleries today is like traversing history and time. Although the space has not been altered visually in a way that we would easily notice, we feel immediately that something has clearly been changed. It is the recorded sound coming in turn from various loudspeakers suspended from the ceiling. The tones are reverberating in the large galleries, moving and shifting through different parts of the exhibition halls like a perpetual echo of bygone times. We are drawn to follow these hesitant and faltering sounds, to go from one loudspeaker to the other, to come back and to stand still – half hoping to succeed in recombining the single notes we hear into a familiar melody. In vain.
Internationally renowned Turner Prize winning artist Susan Philipsz has been working with the medium of sound for more than twenty years. Her starting point is mostly an existing musical piece – be it an Irish or Scottish ballad, a classical composition or a pop song – that is charged with emotion and subtly alludes to or is reminiscent of historical events. For her work, Philipsz rearranges the chosen musical work and records it, either singing it herself or having musicians play it on various instruments. These acoustic traces of the past are often directly related to the presentation space. Her interest aims at the sculptural and psychological potential of sound and its relation to specific sites. Typical for her approach is the frequent deconstruction and fragmentation of the notes to the point of abstraction. This is equally so in the current work at Tate Britain, which belongs to a series of sound installations revolving around conflict and war.
For some years, Philipsz has been looking for historical brass and wind instruments that were damaged during times of conflict, but have since then been preserved in museum collections in Britain or Germany. Each of them represents a tragic story, sometimes forgotten over time, sometimes still remembered. It is known to this day, for example, that one of the bugles Philipsz came across was recovered beside the body of a fourteen-year-old drummer after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, or that several instruments were found after clearing out a civilian bunker in Berlin at the end of Second World War. All these instruments bear traces of damage: bullet holes, dents or missing parts. Philipsz asked musicians to try carefully to play these instruments. Sometimes it worked, but more often than not it was virtually impossible to coax tones out of them (hence the hesitant and faltering quality of the recorded sound). Sometimes, there is no sound at all, and the breath of the musicians is the only thing that can be heard. The human is present through the breath exhaled through the instruments. For the artist, it is not about composing in the strict sense of the word. Rather, she is interested in how the sounds can still be produced with damaged instruments, and how they evoke historical narratives.
Philipsz has already presented some of her instrumental recordings in former exhibitions. At Tate Britain, she includes for the first time all fourteen brass and wind instruments recorded to date, whereby each loudspeaker corresponds to one of the instruments. As the sound alternates through the exhibition spaces, it becomes a resonance chamber, echoing through the museum galleries. This specific form of presentation corresponds with the song to which the fragmented and abstracted tones refer. It is The Last Post, a well-known military call signalling to soldiers wounded or separated on the battlefield that the combat is over. It provides a sound for them to follow in order to find safety and rest.
Hence for War-Damaged Musical Instruments, Philipsz has decided on a musical piece that evokes battles and loss and at the same time prompts strong feelings. Comparable to the voice in the opera, which was once defined as a ‘cultural-historical trace of memory’ (Sigrid Weigel), the sound in Philipsz’ work can also be read likewise. She is able to evoke a feeling for the past. It is a feeling of mourning for the lost ones triggered by a rearranged song composed in the eighteenth century and played with instruments that are historical remnants, or rather: indexical traces of the past. In Philipsz’ work, the sound clearly becomes an echo not only of a bygone age but also of the feelings of a past epoque. These feelings are made present in her installation, in which music – considered to be a medium possessing a particularly intense emotionality – plays an important part. Without hearing words or explanations, the spectator is touched and moved by the sheer presence of the hesitant and vulnerable tones. Nevertheless, there is not only an audible frame of reference to the belligerent past. We can hear the tones in the here and now of the Duveen Galleries – a place with a tragic past too. The Duveen Galleries suffered severe damage during the Second World War, when a bomb hit the building and brought down the gallery roof in 1940.
Coming back to the feeling of mourning described earlier, it has remained difficult to this day to describe this particular feeling. The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud delivered a famous definition in 1915. For him, it was as a reaction to the loss of a precious person, and a process in which the emotional bonds to the lost one are slowly but constantly released until they are entirely dissolved and replaced by someone else. Nowadays, mourning is described in a less one-dimensional manner: Judith Butler, for example, has defined it as a process that not only loosens emotional ties to someone or something lost, but also changes the mourners themselves: they start to question who they are without the other, meaning that the self is always conceived as an inseparable tie between an I and a We. When Philipsz evokes the feeling of mourning in her War-Damaged Instruments, she is able to show that our own personal fate cannot entirely be separated from that of a society and of history. By evoking a particular feeling instead of referring to a specific battle, the artist can transpose wars and conflicts into a more general concept. It is the tragedy and brutality of battles in general that is mourned – no matter which specific incident serves as the trigger.