Who is Susan Philipsz?

Portrait of Susan Philipsz sitting in an office

Portrait of Susan Philipsz
Courtesy of Susan Philipsz

Who is she?

Susan Philipsz is a Scottish artist based in Berlin who works with spaces, narrative and sounds. In 2010 she won the Turner Prize which was the first time a sound work was nominated. In 2014 she was awarded an OBE.

Her sound installation War Damaged Musical Instruments which explores the destruction of war, is in Tate Britain’s Duveen galleries until February 2016.

What sounds does she work with?

She uses recordings, mainly of her own singing voice and projects this sound into a space. Her voice is untrained and she leaves in breaths and imperfections to create a sense of intimacy. 

She has reworked songs varying from traditional folk music and sixteenth century ballads to songs by Nirvana and David Bowie.

What are her themes?

She is interested in how sound can trigger memory and emotions. While each piece is unique, she explores familiar themes of loss, longing, hope and return.

Sound is materially invisible but very visceral and emotive. It can define a space at the same time as it triggers a memory.

Susan Philipsz 

Where has her work been heard?

Picturesque scene of a lake and the green land which surrounds it with a speaker installed

Susan Philipsz
The Distant Sound 2014
Three channel radio transmission
Installation view Moss, Norway, 2014
Photograph: Eoghan McTigue

Installation shot inside ornate building with record players inside

Susan Philipsz
You Are Not Alone
 2009
Two channel radio transmission
Installation view Haus des Rundfunks, Berlin, 2011
Photograph: Nick Ash

Philipsz’ work responds directly to the site in which the piece is installed. Her sound pieces have been heard in out-of-the-way spaces such as alleyways and underpasses to very public bus stations and supermarkets.

By placing audio pieces in an urban environment she examines more closely the architecture and spaces around us. This interest in exploring a geographic location and the effect it has on our emotions and behaviour is sometimes called psychogeography.

When the work is placed in a gritty urban setting, you’re prevented from fully entering into a state of reverie. You can become aware of how the sound defines the architecture and draws attention to it in a new way.
Susan Philipsz

Her audio work has also been displayed in galleries even if a work was originally created and exhibited in a site-specific space. The nature of hearing her work in this setting transforms the experience into something quite meditative and reflective.

What are her key works?

Installation view of Turner Prize winner Susan Philipszs Lowlands at Tate Britain October 2010 photograph of a white gallery with two audio speakers and a visitor sat on a bench

Installation view of Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz's Lowlands at Tate Britain October 2010
© Susan Philipsz . Photo: Tate Photography

Image of the railway line and tracks at Kassel

Susan Philipsz
Study for Strings 2012
Twenty-four channel sound installation
Installation view Kassel Hauptbahnhof, dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, 2012
Photograph: Eoghan McTigue

Installation shot in Hamburger Bahnhof building of three prints of scores which has been crossed out

Susan Philipsz
Part File Score 2014
Twenty-four channel sound installation, Twelve digital and screen pints
Installation view Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2014
Photograph: Nick Ash

A photograph of a propeller is propped up in a grand room with decorated tiles on the walls

Susan Philipsz
Elettra 2015
Five channel sound installation, Five photograpic prints
Installation view Museo d’Arte Moderna di Villa Croce, Genoa, 2015
Photograph: Giovanna Silva

In Turner Prize-winning Lowlands, 2010, Philipsz sung three versions of a sixteenth century Scottish ballad originally installed underneath three bridges in Glasgow. The story is about a sailor who drowns and comes back to say goodbye to a loved one. The work was played in an empty room through three large black speakers at Tate Britain for the Turner Prize.

Watch the Lowlands Turner Prize video.

For Surround Me 2010, Philipsz’ voice was echoed across six locations around the Bank of England including postwar walkways and medieval alleyways. On visiting these sites, Philipsz was drawn to the silence which overcomes this part of London when bankers aren’t around at the weekend. Taking inspiration from this and the history of the City of London, she plays with the haunting sounds of sixteenth century composers, who were influenced by the voices of the city (such as street sellers).

In the short film below, author Iain Sinclair places the songs of Surround Me in their historical context and explains the significance of the location.

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TateShots: Iain Sinclair on Susan Philipsz's 'Surround Me'.

Study for Strings 2012, is an incredibly moving contemporary reworking of Pavel Haas’ 1943 score which Hass composed for a Nazi propaganda film whilst in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Many members of the orchestra along with Hass were killed. For her recording, Philipsz singles out only the viola and cello parts, leaving mass areas of silence exposing the cruel absence of the musicians.  It was installed on the longest train platform at Kassel Hauptbahnhof as part of Documenta 13.

Hear Philipsz talk about these three works and the role of the voice within art practice and oral histories in this Off the Record symposium.

What do the critics say?

Her art makes you think of your place in the world, and opens you up to your feelings.
Adrian Searle, the Guardian

When Philipsz uses objects such as organ pipes or the rims of glasses to make sounds, the architecture itself seems to breathe, and its emptiness becomes as full of potential as it is devoid of the past.
Jonathan Griffin, Frieze

Hers is not an art of great gestures: it’s the work of slowly chipping away at history, exposing something that is both a mesmerising tribute and a lesson for today.
Orit Gat, Art Review

Susan Philpsz in quotes…

Singing is almost like a sculptural experience. Your inner space and what happens when you project sound into a room.

I am particularly interested in the emotive and psychological properties of sound and how it can be used as a device to alter individual consciousness.

There are two ways to experience my work in public space. People either just happen upon it and they’re surprised, they become very aware of their sense of self in that particular place and moment. Or, you’re waiting in anticipation, you become very aware of the time passing.

See also