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August 10 2012

Edinburgh festival: art comes out of the gallery

A haunting sonic work, a pub crawl and films projected on to the walls of a department store – this year visual art at the Edinburgh festival is coming into the open. Karen Wright reports

In past years, the visual arts have always appeared to take a back seat during the Edinburgh international festival. Perhaps it seemed impossible to compete with the cacophony of the main festival, the fringe and the book festival. Sorcha Carey, director of the art festival, has decided to redress the balance with Festival Promenade, a series of works intended to bring the visual arts out of the galleries and into the places where people will be gathering for events. This "magical playground" will feature commissions allowing the artist "to create works that interrogate their spaces". To quote one participating artist, Anthony Schrag, "art is the thing that allows us to ask interesting questions about your life".

Carey's first commission as director of the arts festival in 2011 was a permanent "legacy" installation, Martin Creed's Work number 1059. The work, 104 outdoor steps clad in differently coloured marbles, accompanied Creed's retrospective show at the Fruitmarket Gallery. This year, with a commissioning budget of £250,000, she has turned away from permanent installations and chosen instead to commission a daring set of new interactive works, declaring that the choice is "unabashedly about showcasing Scottish artists". While the ambitious list includes some well-known artists, including Susan Philipsz, the 2010 Turner prize winner, and Callum Innes, a 1995 Turner prize nominee, it also embraces recent graduates of Scotland's art schools.

Carey says her chief aim is "to establish the delicate but important balance between the permanent and temporary in this massive World Heritage Site". I first met her during the opening week of dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, where she introduced me to Philipsz, whose Study for Strings, a sound piece responding to the history of the Hauptbahnhof, was one of the most affecting works for many visitors.

Philipsz confessed that when she made her first site visit to Edinburgh she did not really know the city. As a child growing up in a large Catholic family in Glasgow, she spent little time in Edinburgh, later studying in Belfast and New York and eventually settling in Berlin. She says her inspiration for Timeline, her Edinburgh work, was the spectacular view spread out below Nelson's Monument, and the tradition of the daily one o'clock gun in Edinburgh Castle, which was originally connected by a mile-long cable to the ball-drop on Cable Hill for sailors at sea to set their chronometers.

Philipsz's work will replace the long-removed cable, her sung tripartite chord being taken down the hill through seven individual speakers in a kind of domino effect. The work is a homage to Edinburgh resident John Robinson, who invented the siren, and to the sirens from Homer's Odyssey who lured sailors on to the rocks with the devastating beauty of their sound. Philipsz plays me the chord, simple and pure, which sounds to her, she says, "somewhat like a train". Its magic in Edinburgh will be its fleetingness, under a minute in all, and the mystery of where the sound is coming from.

Philipsz's sound trajectory will finish near the gun itself, in the gardens beneath the castle, where Edinburgh College of Art graduate Emily Speed will stage a one-off performance of Human Castle. The work will be composed of 10 "acro-balancers" in cardboard costumes, counterbalancing to form a castle-like shape before dismounting. Carey observes that Speed "draws out fragility in something that we often think of as solid and immovable by making them animate".

This is Speed's first performance back in Edinburgh, having left the city in 2002 to live and work in Japan before settling in Liverpool, and will be the first time she has not taken part. Instead she will assume the role of director: "It's quite strange to lose control of the work," she says. "It's terrifying but exciting working with the acrobats and I know that people will ask if it is acrobatics or a piece of art."

She describes the commission as "an act of faith", saying Carey "is not scared to take risks." When I speak to Speed she is in the midst of making the costumes. "I won't know if it works until they do it," she says. "I am asking the acrobats to do something they have never done before: counterbalance." There will be only one performance lasting a few minutes, but it will be filmed and screened throughout the festival.

In her determination to integrate the programme into the city, Carey identified Rose Street, a short road dominated at one junction by a brutish modernist BHS, as an ideal location for works. The Rose Street film programme will include Speed's film and will show on small screens in shop windows along the street in daylight, while at night films will be screened on BHS's large external wall.

Rose Street will also be the location for Kevin Harman's work 24/7. Carey first saw the work of Edinburgh native Harman in his degree show. She says his work is "engaging people about the world and the art, 24/7," and her ambitions for the festival as a whole seem to be summed up in the way she describes his piece as a "facilitation of dialogue".

Harman stole 210 of his neighbours' doormats from three enormous tenement buildings, leaving notes that they could be reclaimed at his degree show, where they were arranged as a giant work of art. The work sought to bring the community together in an unexpected way. Harman says he "comes to an environment open to the ideas of the viewer". He chooses not to talk about details of his festival project, saying: "If I think too much about the project it becomes too contrived."

The contribution of artist Anthony Schrag – a pub crawl tour – is bound to be popular. It too will take place on Rose Street and is part of Carey's aim to "encourage people to broaden their idea of what art can be". Although Schrag is currently based in the city, he is billed as the Edinburgh "Tourist in Residence", reflecting his interest in the changing landscape of his beloved city. He will take small groups around Edinburgh on unusual outings ranging from an early morning walk to a blindfold tour and a communal nap in a park, as well as the Rose Street pub crawl. Although the majority of Schrag's work has been produced outside the gallery context, he does not see himself as a performance artist. He observes that "unlike in performance art, the viewer takes equal part in the creation of the work". Rather than the city's beauty spots, his tours will explore the dark alleyways, turning away from the idea that "art looks at beautiful things".

Of all the artists participating in Festival Promenade, Callum Innes, an Edinburgh resident who shows with a local gallery, could be called the most traditional, with his paintings unashamedly exploring pure abstraction. But for the first time, he works here in light: in his installation The Regent Bridge, two "paintings" made of light will change colour with random variations. He says he wanted to "bring attention and to re-emphasise" the structure and beauty of the Regent Bridge. "This is such a dark part of Edinburgh, behind the station, that the changes have to be quick. It's a work of art, not a Georgian project," he says firmly. Like many others, Innes felt that the "festival has always deserved a good visual arts festival", so he donated his fee and says nervously, as he has not seen the finished work yet, "it challenged me and works for the city".

The Glasgow-based artist Andrew Miller provides the seeming centre of the installations with The Waiting Place, a temporary structure that will provide shelter from the elements, a starting point for Schrag's tours, and information including artist Peter Arkle's fantastical yet useful map of the festival. Miller has been exploring the interplay between design and art for years. I tell him that his piece seems the most imposing, in a sense, and he laughs. "It's hard to find – you have to go off the path and go into the trees, and after the festival it will disappear unless someone comes and decides to buy it and they have both space and a tree to put it round." I point out how different this seems from the more grandiose Serpentine Pavilions. Miller admits that he had a "quite generous budget, but the structure, while it is temporary, is robust. This is a cross between an Alvar Aalto summerhouse and a Trinidadian shack." The Waiting Place appears to be more of a whimsical summerhouse, and is appropriately named after a line from Dr Seuss: it offers a space "in which you're welcome to simply enjoy the act of waiting for something to happen". Miller says "it will keep you dry, but it is well ventilated deliberately, as it is about looking out. People animate it."

In Edinburgh, Carey is channelling artists' energy to act outside the cossetted space of the white cube. But if interactive work is not your thing, there are promising shows of Dieter Roth, Philip Guston, John Bellany and the blockbuster Picasso and Modern British Art, recently at Tate Britain, in Edinburgh museums. For me, though, I imagine Susan Philipsz's haunting sounds will hang in the air long after the festival, encouraging tourists to retrace the mile-long journey of her lost chord. After all, the definition of "promenade" is to walk with pleasure.

Edinburgh Art festival runs until 2 September www.edinburghartfestival.com


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August 09 2012

Olympics in art: Susan Philipsz runs her own national anthem hum-athon

The Turner prize-winning artist simultaneously hums the anthems from Granada, Ethiopia, Russia, Bahrain, USA, GB, Nigeria and Jamaica





August 02 2012

Edinburgh art festival - in pictures

From Mickey and Minnie tapestries to movie screenings for monkeys, Edinburgh art festival has the lot. Plus, new and rare works by Susan Philipsz, Vincent van Gogh, David Hockney and Dieter Roth





July 27 2012

Susan Philipsz guns for glory at Edinburgh festival – the week in art

The Turner prizewinner's voice will ring out across the city in response to Edinburgh Castle's One O'Clock Gun. And did we heed Martin Creed's Olympic bell-ringing cry? – all in today's weekly art dispatch

Exhibition of the week

Susan Philipsz
The One O'Clock Gun is fired nearly every day from Edinburgh Castle in a tradition dating from 1861. It once had a practical function as a message to shipping. At this year's Edinburgh festival, it becomes the focus for a meeting of the city's cheerful tourist side and coolest artistic ambitions as Turner prizewinner Susan Philipsz installs sound works around the city that respond to the gun at 1pm daily. Her voice replying to the gun can be heard by Nelson's Monument on Calton Hill, in Old Calton Cemetery, on North Bridge, Waverley Bridge, next to the National Gallery on The Mound, and in West Princes Street Gardens.
Edinburgh art festival, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September

Other exhibitions this week

Callum Innes
This Edinburgh painter works with light to illuminate the underside of a beautiful bridge.
• Regent Bridge, Calton Road, Edinburgh from 2 August until 2 September.

Dieter Roth
An intimate encounter with a fascinating European artist.
Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 14 October

Catherine the Great
This great patron of the 18th-century Enlightenment is celebrated with treasures from the Hermitage in St Petersburg.
National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh until 21 October

Ian Hamilton Finlay
The poet and artist whose garden is a national treasure gets a welcome showing in the Edinburgh art festival.
• Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh from 2 August until 27 October

Masterpiece of the week

Goya, El Médico (The Doctor)

This shadowy vision of the human predicament is one of the most haunting paintings in Edinburgh's greatest art collection.
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh

Image of the week

What we learned this week

How a 10km-long computer "cemetery" in Ghana provides an income for many of the people living there – and how photographer Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo is bringing its health risks to light

That Diana Athill remembers a London when Kew was exotic, Selfridges was vulgar and all men wore bowler hats

Why Tino Sehgal's work at Tate Modern is the most difficult and dangerous project director Chris Dercon has ever put in the museum

That more and more people are creating DIY photobooks, spawning a collection that celebrates "naughty pics"

That Chief Joseph's shirt auctioned for $900,000

That two men have been charged with stealing a Henry Moore sundial

And finally

Post your personal images that sum up what London means to you on the Guardian Art and Design Flickr page

Share your art on the theme of sport now

Check out our Tumblr

Follow us on Twitter

Are you the person the Contemporary Art Society are looking for?


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October 17 2011

Glasgow's Turner connection

Why does Glasgow keep producing so many Turner prize winners and nominees? Could it all be down to this man? Charlotte Higgins investigates

Over the past few years, there has been a distinctly Scottish flavour to the Turner prize. Last year, the winner was Glasgow-born Susan Philipsz, for a sound installation she created in the seedy, dank shadow of a bridge over the Clyde. The year before, it was Richard Wright, for his intricate, painstakingly made wall paintings; he did his masters at the Glasgow School of Art and still lives in the city.

This week, the work of all four shortlisted artists goes on show at the Baltic, Gateshead – and two are Glaswegian: Martin Boyce, whose sculptures do fearful things with modernist interior design; and Karla Black, who uses lipstick, pastel-coloured candles, eyeshadow and sugar paper as her materials. Artists based or born in the city who have been shortlisted in the recent past include Jim Lambie, Christine Borland, Cathy Wilkes, Lucy Skaer and Nathan Coley. There have been two further winners in Douglas Gordon and Simon Starling.

If the Turner prize provides a rough-and-ready compass bearing for visual art in Britain, the needle has for some time been twitching towards this grandiose, grandiloquent, sometimes rough-and-ready city. Why? A clue can be found in the first issue, from September 1991, of the contemporary art magazine Frieze. It contains an interview with three artists in their early 20s. They have just graduated from the Glasgow School of Art. They are articulate, cocky and funny. They seem to know, with an intense certainty, that they are artists, not just art-school graduates. One writes off, with breathtaking chutzpah, a then-prominent school of Scottish painters as "a tiny, unimportant part of the international art world". Another, while admitting such a formulation is crass, says their own work has "more to do with hip-hop and the Face than Constable". These young guns are Douglas Gordon, Nathan Coley and Martin Boyce. Five years after the interview, Gordon – now best known for film works such as 24-Hour Psycho and Zidane – won the Turner prize.

Something very particular happened at the Glasgow School of Art in the late 1980s. A group of young Glaswegians – including Coley, Gordon, Boyce and Borland – began to study a new course: environmental art, led by the now-retired David Harding. "They were confident and confrontational and questioning‚" says Harding, when we meet in his flat among the elegant terraces of Glasgow's west end, a picture of Bob Dylan on the wall, a Peter Seeger LP propped on the piano. "I was astonished by their articulacy."

The course was not traditional painting or sculpture. It was, say its graduates, about ideas. The context for making work was as important as the work itself. The department was not based in the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed main building, but in a former girls' school that was used as a site for making work. "It was an amazing place," says Harding. "There were basements with 50 children's sinks in them, history books lying around in piles. There were attics, strange, devious, different rooms. An Escher-like staircase. One half of the school was locked off and forbidden. Of course, the students broke in."

The students were required to do art projects outside the school, to find sites, negotiate with owners. "They began to be wheelers and dealers. They had to forage in other departments to get access to dark rooms, printing facilities. They had," says Harding, "a piratical attitude."

It was an attitude in tune with the times. As Coley says, "We were children of Thatcher. Doing it for yourself was in the air. It seems crazy what we did now: we'd get money for international projects out of a combination of ignorance and blind confidence." Down south, a group of artists – many of them graduates from Goldsmith's, London – were also operating in a new way. But if some of these Londoners, quickly dubbed YBAs, were selling to Charles Saatchi and making work with the quickfire cheerfulness of billboard ads, that certainly wasn't happening in Glasgow. The YBAs were entrepreneurs; the Glaswegians were scavengers. Their work was more lyrical, less immediate.

I meet Coley at the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, a hive of quiet industry with its neatly organised metal and wood workshops and its 45 artists' studios. Coley's trim space is hung with work-in-progress: a series of photographs with certain areas blanked out with gold leaf: new work for a solo show in London next year. There was nothing magical about his and his friends' success, he says. "It was really, really hard work." It is clear, though, that there was a set of propitious circumstances that affected not just these young people in Glasgow, but the art world internationally. Moira Jeffrey, art critic of the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper, points out that the artists emerged "at a politically desperate moment. We forget how horrible the late 1980s were. It was the dwindling Tory era. In Glasgow, the situation was economically dire, but there was a good education system and student grants – and you could live cheaply." There was also, she says, a certain power "in the fabric of this city, built on sugar, ships and slavery. It is a very ambiguous heritage, but incredibly grand."

Perhaps the most important factor, though, was the web of relationships established between those students from the late 1980s – a way of interacting that seems to have set the tone for the Glasgow art world since. According to Harding: "We partied a lot. Drank a lot. And with people like Douglas, Martin, Nathan, I'd go to their weddings, their children's christenings, birthday parties, and still do."

The students fell in, and sometimes out, of love with each other. They mostly lived near each other, up on the windy heights of Garnethill near the art school. Gordon went out with Borland, and shared a flat with Katrina Brown, now a curator, who went out with Coley (the latter couple are still together). Brown is now director of The Common Guild, a gallery based in a house in Glasgow belonging to Gordon. Later, Gordon was best man at Richard Wright and Sarah Lowndes' wedding; she now lectures at the art school, and has written a study of the city's art scene called Social Sculpture.

After graduating, a rite of passage for many was to sit on the committee for the artist-run gallery, Transmission, which had been set up in 1983 to instigate all kinds of international projects. According to Coley, "There was a mixture of gallusness, confidence, and being a bit wide." Gallus is one of those almost untranslatable Scots words that hovers somewhere between uncompromising, bold, swaggering and unstoppable. Harding uses it, too. "They were gallus. They were going to prove that they could do something." They also, crucially, helped each other. Coley says, if a curator comes to Glasgow to see you, "There's an unwritten rule that you introduce them to someone else, too."

Borrow a book from a pop star

It wasn't a paradise; it was a struggle. There was some public funding, and the artists were often helped by unsung, visionary civil servants. But when the city's Gallery of Modern Art opened in 1998, it totally – and scandalously – ignored the new wave of Glasgow artists. Brown thinks that that early institutional blindness has been damaging, particularly to Glasgow's ability to support a market for contemporary art. "If your city gallery is saying Beryl Cook is an important artist, maybe you don't want to buy a Douglas Gordon," she speculates. The economics of the scene, she says, are "fragile".

This autumn, Sorcha Dallas, a Glasgow gallerist, announced she was closing her doors, citing the combination of the removal of the Creative Scotland funding that allowed her to visit international art fairs, and the recession. "It's not that there aren't rich people," says Dallas. "It's just that they choose to spend their money elsewhere. People here would be more inclined to buy a Jack Vettriano than a Douglas Gordon." Environmental art graduate Toby Webster, who co-founded The Modern Institute, a commercial gallery that has been of huge importance in promoting the work of the major Glasgow artists, says it is important for him to be in the city, "two minutes away from where the artists work". But most of his buyers live elsewhere. Perhaps the scene is so close-knit because its leading lights remain relatively unsung in their own city.

Is the Glasgow scene a flash in the pan, a one-off alchemical combination of people, place and time? The scene has, of course, changed. Different kinds of students have been attracted by the city's rising reputation, coming from England and abroad (at first, they were nearly all natives). Some of the early wave have stayed or drifted back to Glasgow, Borland, Boyce, Coley and David Shrigley all live here, no longer young guns, but established artists in their 40s. Jeffrey believes pop musicians set an important example, showing that you didn't have to move to London to make it. "It set a paradigm. Stephen Pastel, of the Pastels, had an international career, and he worked in a library. You could go and borrow a book from your favourite pop star. The people you'd see in the pub were selling records all over the world."

Harding has seen great changes to art-school education, funding cuts chief among them. His department was merged with sculpture. A decade ago, he retired. But he still has faith in students, he says. According to Jeffrey: "I had a period where I worried that Glasgow School of Art would become a posh finishing school: but people come here and start behaving like Glaswegian artists."

I ask Sarah Lowndes if she believes Glasgow will continue to produce Turner-shortlisted artists, or whether we are reaching the end of an era. She reels off younger but already established names such as Torsten Lauschmann and Lorna Macintyre; and mentions younger artists, too, "bright sparks" such as Tom Varley and Rebecca Wilcox. "There's a network that's not predicated on commercial success, but on the idea of community," she says.

And now for a song

In search of a younger scene, I head to a gallery called the Duchy, carved out of an old shop near St Mungo's Cathedral; it's a slightly ramshackle part of the city being smartened up for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Here, Glaswegians Lauren Currie, 26, and Ainslie Roddick, 24, are putting the finishing touches to their new show. The two – Currie, a graduate of Dundee's Duncan of Jordanstone college; Roddick, from the Glasgow School of Art – met when they were working in a deli, and set up the Duchy out of a conviction, says Currie, that "there needed to be somewhere for our generation of artists".

They turned next door into studios and rented them out to raise income for the gallery. They converted the space themselves. These immensely self-possessed young women, in their energetic but co-operative way, seem to have much of the spirit of their predecessors. "The older artists are accessible," says Roddick. "They go to shows, and there's something that keeps them here. It has given people a confidence that you can stay in Glasgow as an artist." This is a not-for-profit space; they are not interested in running a commercial gallery. "It's not needed," says Roddick firmly.

Towards the end of our conversation, Harding says something out of the blue: "The singing – that was really important." There was always lots of singing, he says. Every year, he would host a Burns supper in his flat. All the guests were expected to recite a poem or song. There is something remarkable about imagining these cool, perhaps rather belligerent, young artists standing up and singing, say, Scottish songs from their childhoods. Harding remembers one night in particular: "Before Douglas started singing, he said, 'I want to tell you a story. A curator was asking me: what were you taught in Glasgow? Where did it all come from?' And Douglas said, 'Singing.'"


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December 08 2010

This one's for you, Glasgow

Turner prize star Susan Philipsz comes from a long line of innovative artists and musicians with Glaswegian roots

Douglas Gordon, who in 1996 became the first Glaswegian artist to win the Turner prize, was once asked what he had been taught at Glasgow School of Art. His reply was simple. "To sing," he said. "Not how to sing, but simply to sing."

Those words now seem prophetic. On Monday night, Susan Philipsz, another artist born and raised in Glasgow – although now based in Berlin – followed in Gordon's footsteps. Philipsz was nominated for the Turner for her sound installation Lowlands (2010), which consisted of recordings of the artist singing a 16th-century lament for a drowned lover, originally played beneath three bridges on Glasgow's River Clyde before being transposed to Tate Britain.

Since 1996, no fewer than 10 artists associated with Glasgow have been nominated for the Turner, including Christine Borland (1997), Martin Creed (2001), Jim Lambie and Simon Starling (both 2005), Nathan Coley (2007), Cathy Wilkes (2008), Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright (both 2009). Of these, five won: Gordon, Creed, Starling, Wright and Philipsz. It's a reflection of the way in which Glasgow has emerged from post-industrial decline to become the UK's main art centre after London, with a reputation for producing innovative and highly acclaimed artists and musicians.

But there's more to it than simply that. Many of the best-known artists from Glasgow emerged from the Environmental Art Department at the city's art school (where, as it happens, I also teach). Students were encouraged to produce art outside studios and galleries ("with or through people", in the words of the course description). Crucially, they were also expected to seek permission to install their work in the public domain, breeding both confidence and an abiding interest in context and site-specific work. Those interests were evident in their post-graduation projects, notably the 1991 Windfall exhibition, organised by Douglas Gordon, Martin Boyce, Nathan Coley and others in the disused Seaman's Mission by the Clyde, and positively reviewed in the inaugural issue of Frieze magazine. The obvious parallel is with Goldsmiths College, London, and you might compare Windfall and the 1988 Docklands exhibition Freeze, which precipitated the beginning of the YBA phenomenon.

That comparison only goes so far, however. Collectors of contemporary art in Glasgow are few and far between, and the city certainly has no equal to London gallerist and collector Charles Saatchi, so often credited with creating much of the hype around the YBAs. The establishment of The Modern Institute by Will Bradley, Charles Esche and Toby Webster in 1998 and more recently, the young commercial galleries Sorcha Dallas and Mary Mary has changed that situation to a certain extent, but Glasgow remains a city in which many artists make work that they do not expect to sell. Much of the most notable art that has emerged from the city since the early 90s has been deliberately non-permanent, short-term and ephemeral, and made on very tight budgets. Without the relentless enthusiasm of people mounting exhibitions, playing gigs and throwing parties in tenement flats, pub basements and disused buildings, none of it would have happened at all.

Philipsz's Lowlands, which was commissioned for Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, underlined the importance of live music in generating a sense of community in Glasgow. The three adjacent Clyde bridges where Philipsz's work was installed were built during the late 19th and early 20th century, when Glasgow was the workshop of the world and the fourth largest city in Europe, after London, Paris and Berlin. At this time folk traditions flourished in the worker's inns, taverns and shebeens around the city's Bridgegate, Saltmarket and Gallowgate – where bars like The Victoria and The Scotia are still active gathering places for folk singers and musicians today. Indeed, last year's Turner prize winner, painter Richard Wright, supported his work during the 80s and early 90s by playing banjo and guitar at numerous ceilidhs and gigs around the city – and now plays in alt-pop band Correcto with Franz Ferdinand's Paul Thomson.

Wright is by no means unusual amongst his peers. Many of Glasgow's best-known artists are also musicians, such as Jim Lambie, who was once in a band called the Boy Hairdressers and still moonlights as a DJ. Cathy Wilkes performed with all-women collective Elizabeth Go, and 2008 Jarman prize winner Luke Fowler plays in experimental band Rude Pravo. Most of the city's best-known bands, including Franz Ferdinand and The Phantom Band, have members who trained at Glasgow School of Art.

The city's art and music scenes have grown in tandem because, as Glasgow-based writer Nicola White, put it in a 1995 essay, "Parties matter. They are part of the glue that holds any artistic community together, compensation for pursuing what is, at heart, a very solitary line of work." When Douglas Gordon took to the rostrum in 1996 to accept the Turner prize, his first thought was to thank his family and the people he called "the Scotia Nostra". Susan Philipsz, too, dedicated her award to her family and friends, saying "this is for you". She couldn't have put it better.

Sarah Lowndes is the author of Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (2010)


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December 07 2010

Sonic boom

Susan Philipsz has won the Turner prize – using just her own voice. So was her night marred by the student protests? How did she get into sound art? And what's this about a run-in with Stephen Fry?

Monday's Turner prize ceremony was the oddest – and in some ways the most moving – that most regular guests of the annual event can remember. Students and lecturers from London art colleges staged a "teach-in" protest during the day in Tate Britain, where the award was due to be announced in the evening. At closing time, many refused to leave, remaining in the entrance hall.

Later, at the event itself, only a makeshift barrier separated the student protesters from the party-goers in the central gallery of the museum. The students – demonstrating against cuts in public funding to higher education for arts, humanities and social sciences – were invisible but audible, and the talk inside the party, where guests included culture minister Ed Vaizey, was of little else. Many at the party had attended art schools or taught in them, and, despite a certain discomfort induced by their sipping champagne while the young protesters continued with their demonstration just metres away, approved of the protest.

Anjalika Sagar – half of the Otolith Group collective, which was shortlisted for the prize – went outside to give a speech of solidarity to the students and returned clutching a crumpled banner. Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate, also spoke to them sympathetically. And the winner of the £25,000 prize – Glaswegian Susan Philipsz, whose piece consisted of a recording of her soft and sonorous voice singing a traditional Scottish lament over the River Clyde – remembered it the morning after just as an artist who works in sound ought: "It was a surreal experience. The particular acoustics in the gallery made it seem like it was a dream – the way the cheering and the chanting carried."

Some artists might have felt a little irritated by their moment of glory being so noisily hijacked, but Philipsz is a veteran of the barricades. In her acceptance speech, she expressed her sympathies – even if, in the heat of the moment, she blurted out that "education is a privilege not a right", which might well be taken as a prophecy. When we meet at Tate Britain the following morning, she corrects herself. "Education is a right not a privilege – as I used to say myself on demos."

In fact, before Philipsz went to art school at the age of 23, she devoted herself to political activism in her hometown. She had always wanted to be an artist, but reckoned her time could be more usefully channelled into promoting political causes. This was in the mid-1980s; she is 45 now. "We campaigned against the poll tax. And the miners' strike. We used to collect money outside shopping centres – 'Dig deep for the miners'; 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, out, out, out.' I thought of doing politics more seriously. I passionately believed we could change the world – that there could be socialism in our time. Those were heady, idealistic days."

So what happened? Where did the idealism go? "I know my works aren't overtly political, but . . . " She hesitates. "But I did use the Internationale in a work." Remarkably, given the fact that she has had three hours' sleep, she starts to sing, in that sweet voice . . .

Arise, ye workers from your slumber,

Arise, ye prisoners of want.

For reason in revolt now thunders,

And at last ends the age of cant!

She made the work in 1999: a recording of her voice, singing this anthem of international socialism, was installed in an underpass in Ljubljana, Slovenia. "When I hear a big group singing that song," says Philipsz, "it makes me want to cry. But with my solo voice it was ambiguous. It was unclear whether it was a clarion call to action, or a lament for the past." She says she remembers an old lady, tears streaming down her face, singing along in what may have been Slovenian or Russian.

In the end, what got her to art school was her sister Barbara, one of five siblings. (Four of them made it to the event to celebrate. Mum and dad stayed at home: "Mum was dancing in front of the telly.") Back then, Barbara was attending Bellarmine Arts Centre in Glasgow, building up a portfolio to get her into art college. So Philipsz joined the class, too. Barbara then got in to Glasgow School of Art, and Philipsz didn't. Instead, she was offered a place at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, part of Dundee University.

There, Philipsz took part in student protests against cuts to grants, and reminisces about an occupation of the university. "We had all slept in the library and, at the crack of dawn, we were put into pairs and designated our own room." She and a fellow student were put into "what looked like the nerve centre of the university" – a cupboard-size room humming with giant computers.

After an altercation in which "someone tried to shoulder the door", there came a polite knock. Could the university's rector have a word? They said yes. "And in walks Stephen Fry. He looked like a giant. He had a really deep tan as if he'd been helicoptered in from his holiday. He said, 'Look here, I am sympathetic to your cause, but do you really think this is the right way of addressing it?'" Fry was sent off with a flea in his ear by Philipsz's fellow protester.

Later, she studied as a postgraduate in Belfast. So, though she  is Glaswegian, her background is different from that of so many artists who, graduates of the city's art school, have ended up as nominees for or winners of the Turner prize, including Richard Wright (last year), Simon Starling (2005), and Douglas Gordon (1996). "I think it was a good thing I left," she says. "Though it's so hard to tell. It's been a different route from a lot of my peers."

The work that clinched the prize was the installation Lowlands Away, under three bridges of the Clyde in Glasgow, made for the art festival Glasgow International. In fact, she has had relatively little work shown in her hometown, and mourns the fact that Lowlands Away ran for just two weeks – and, during that time, aircraft were grounded by the Icelandic ash cloud, so many potential visitors were prevented from coming to the festival from overseas.

Soft voice on a brutalist walkway

It was the period in Belfast, she says, that really formed her as an artist and saw her gravitating, as a sculpture student, towards sound, in particular recordings of her own voice. "I had always liked singing, and I started thinking about the physicality of singing – becoming aware of the space created by the voice in the body, and how it projects into the space around you." The fact that her voice is untrained is part of the power of her work – there is a fragility, a humanity and a sheer ordinariness to her voice that draws the listener in, adding an emotional depth to the otherwise formal intent of her work, which is about the way that sound can fill, explain and animate a space.

A six-part piece, Surround Me, commissioned by Artangel, can currently be experienced in various locations around the City of London: walkers happen upon the melancholy sounds of 16th- and 17th-century English madrigals and rounds as they wander past London Bridge, the Bank of England and the strange brutalist walkways of the financial district.

Philipsz has, for the last nine years, lived in Berlin with her partner Eoghan McTigue; it's a city that's home to so many British artists, including Gordon, Ceal Floyer, and former Turner prize nominees Tacita Dean and Phil Collins. She plans to host a Burns night this year, with homemade haggis (she honed her technique last year by stuffing enough offal into a pig's stomach to feed 30 people, brave woman).

She has no plans to come home, though she can sound wistful about Scotland and London. But then a hint of wistfulness seems to flow through both Philipsz and her work. "I sometimes miss – Eoghan would laugh at me, he doesn't think I can change a lightbulb – I sometimes miss the physicality of making things," she says.

But, as Serota said at the prize ceremony, with an ironic nod in the direction of the chants of the demonstrators, now seems to be all about sound.

• The Turner prize exhibition is at Tate Britain, London SW1, until 3 January 2011. Details: tate.org.uk


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Sound and fury

Last night Susan Philipsz won the Turner prize, but the evening was dominated by art students demonstrating against cuts



December 06 2010

Susan Philipsz wins Turner prize

Susan Philipsz' work makes you think about place, space, memory and presence: it opens up your feelings

Susan Philipsz winning the Turner prize is the right result, and I feel the same pleasure in her win as I did when painter Tomma Abts won in 2006. In both cases I was impressed by the artists' originality - not a word you hear much in contemporary art circles, their inventiveness, and the difficult yet accessible pleasures their art can give.

Dexter Dalwood's paintings seemed to me too brittle, too clever and contrived to win. He was let down by having too many works in the show, too few of which were in themselves compelling. Each painting was a compendium of styles and references, and it all felt a bit too dutiful and congested. I much prefer Angela de la Cruz's work, with its painful humour, honesty and knockabout abjection. But De la Cruz's work seems to me to be at a moment of transition. Having only recently returned to work following a debilitating stroke, her ensemble of recent and older paintings and sculptures was as much a statement of intent as a fully achieved exhibition. Last month, de la Cruz won a coveted £35,000 Paul Hamlyn award. This is as valuable and prestigious as winning the Turner Prize.

Like De la Cruz, the wider exposure of the art of the Otolith Group collective has been valuable. It is as though Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar wanted to make life as hard on the audience as possible. I took a perverse delight in the fact that they made us work at their art, which is as erudite as it is sensual, as sexy as it is filmic. But they have an almost academic streak that makes one think one is in a classroom or study centre.

Philipsz is the first artist working with sound to have won the prize. I can imagine people saying she is just a singer, with the sort of voice you might feel lucky to come across at a folk club. But there is much more to Philipsz than a good voice. All singers, of course, are aware of the space their voice occupies, of the difference between one hall and another. We know it ourselves, singing in the shower. But the way Philipsz sites recordings of her voice is as much to do with place as sound. She has haunted the Clyde and filled her box-like Turner installation with the ballad Lowlands; she has called across a lake in Germany and had her voice swept away by the wind on a Folkestone headland.

Her current Artangel project, Surround Me, insinuates itself down alleys and courtyards in the City of London, her voice like an Elizabethan ghost, singing melancholy works by John Dowland and other 16th and 17th century composers. I have stood in shadowy old courtyards and between gleaming office blocks, weeping as I listen. And how many artists can you say that about?

Her sense of place, and space, memory and presence reminds me, weirdly, of the sculptor Richard Serra at his best. Her art makes you think of your place in the world, and opens you up to your feelings.


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Who should win the Turner prize?

Sound artist Susan Philipsz may be the bookies' favourite, but Angela de la Cruz, Dexter Dalwood and the Otolith Group are also strong contenders. Ahead of tonight's announcement, who gets your vote?

When it comes to predicting the winner of the Turner prize, I have appalling form. One year I was convinced that Phil Collins's brilliantly sardonic TV project about Turkish reality shows was going to win (it didn't). In 2008, I quite fancied Cathy Wilkes's chances (Mark Leckey went on to win). So when I tell you that my favourite for this year's award is Angela de la Cruz, who makes awkward, funny sculptures that don't quite do what they're meant to, my advice is: don't listen to anything I say.

The betting is, of course, hardly the point. And some would argue that, when the shortlist includes work as different as painting, film, sculpture and sound, choosing a winner at all doesn't make much sense. But that's prizes for you, and – like it or not – a winner will be chosen later this evening, in the full glare of the world's press, at Tate Britain.

A reminder about who's in the running. There's Dexter Dalwood, who paints scenes that many of us have imagined (the death of Dr David Kelly, Jimi Hendrix's basement, wartime Iraq) but never seen. Dalwood has his fans – you lot said he should win – but Britain's newspaper critics aren't among them: Richard Dorment of the Telegraph called his work "cack-handed paintings of imaginary landscapes and interiors", while our own Jonathan Jones said back in 2000 that "if this is what they mean by painting, I hope it goes away soon". Then there's The Otolith Group, Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun, who make erudite, multi-strand work drawing on the history of cinema and social movements. Their room in the Turner prize exhibition contains a 45-minute film made of fragments of other films, a row of TV sets playing an obscure documentary about Ancient Greece, and a densely packed book. Easy to digest it certainly isn't; maybe that's the point.

The next room in the show is de la Cruz's, and contains a number of new paintings that have been torn apart or otherwise subjected to violence. They're called things like Deflated and Clutter, and squat anxiously in the gallery as if they're embarrassed to be there. I love her work – the wit as well as the sadness of it – but there's a feeling that perhaps this isn't her year. I guess we'll find out. The fourth artist to be shortlisted this year is Glaswegian Susan Philipsz, whose contribution to the show you hear long before you see it. Actually there isn't anything to see, just three loudspeakers and a bench; it is a piece of sound art, recordings of the artist singing slightly different versions of a Scottish medieval ballad. Mysterious and enticing, sorrowful and enigmatic, these songs overlap and intermingle, echoing around the room and out into the gallery beyond. The bookies tell us that Philipsz is the favourite to win – a good result, if only because it will be the first time that sound art has received this kind of recognition (and if you want to find out more about what she does, we ran a video interview with her last Friday).

The judges are meeting this afternoon to decide, and the waiting will be over for the rest of us at about 7.50pm when the ceremony is broadcast on Channel 4 News. Both Charlotte Higgins and I will be tweeting snippets live (follow us at twitter.com/andydickson and twitter.com/chiggi; we'll use the #TP2010 hashtag). We'll have news and reaction as soon as we can, pictures as soon as we get them, and tomorrow morning we'll have a video digest of the night's events. In the meantime, you could watch Adrian Searle's video tour around the exhibition, read Laura Cumming's astute review, or test your wits with our Turner prize quiz. And of course we want to know what you think. Have you seen the show? Did it pass muster? Who do you reckon should win?

Oh, one final thing: you haven't seen any of the artwork and still feel like posting that it's a load of old nonsense, I'm afraid Twitter's IanVisits has already got there: he suggests using #YouCallThatArt, #MyKidCouldDoBetter, #ItsRubbish or #WhatAWasteOfTime as tags. Enough said.


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December 03 2010

Susan Philipsz's songs of the City

Video: The soundscape artist gives a guided tour of the areas of London's financial district that inspired her Artangel commission, Surround Me



November 14 2010

The art of noise: Susan Philipsz

'Sculptor in sound' Susan Philipsz uses her untrained, unaccompanied singing voice as her sole medium. Her work, heard on city streets, under a bridge and by a lake, is so intangible it can't even be seen. So how did she become this year's Turner Prize favourite?

For someone who makes a living out of singing, Susan Philipsz is somewhat lacking in musical talent. Although she can hold a note all right, her voice, she admits, is distinctly average. She can't read music and neither does she write any of her own songs. "I hate my voice," she tells me as she bites into a tuna sandwich over lunch. "I particularly hate my speaking voice: I think I mumble a lot and it's way too quiet."

It's funny then that Philipsz's singing can currently be heard in some of the most prestigious galleries and venues the world over. At the Guggenheim in New York, for example, once every 10 minutes her a-cappella rendition of "Oh, Willow Waly", a chilling number about sex and death, which she sings like a lullaby, fills the rotunda. Drop in on this year's São Paulo Bienniale and there it is again, ringing out across a vast concrete thoroughfare in glorious surround sound. And, should you chance upon the gardens of the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, or wander through London's financial district, it's there again, loud and clear across the city air.

Philipsz is one of this year's Turner Prize nominees and her contribution is, once again, a song. In her gallery at Tate Britain there's nothing but three large black speakers out of which comes her voice singing a 16th-century Scottish ballad called "Lowlands" in three different parts, a piece she originally installed on the underside of three bridges in Glasgow. She's been billed by the press as the "controversial" nominee – the first sound artist ever to be shortlisted for the most prestigious prize in British art – but is the favourite to scoop the £25,000 pot, the winner of which is announced on 6 December. At the time of writing, the odds on Philipsz to win are 2-5. "She's been very heavily backed," the man from William Hill tells me. "I've never seen odds that short. It means there is a 72% chance that she is going to win."

It seems that Philipsz has had the good fortune of being picked for the Turner at exactly the right point in her career. Is she, I ask, having something of a moment? "Yes I suppose I am," she says. "I've never worked harder than I'm working now. Personally, I think the timing is good – although I'm not sure everyone agrees. When the BBC came to interview me for News at Ten one of the questions they asked me was, 'How does it feel that you've only been asked to be in the Turner Prize now that you're 44 and have been an artist for over a decade?' I was like, 'Well, you know… I just think I'm making my most interesting work right now.'"

Philipsz, who was born one of six in Maryhill, in the heart of Glasgow, has loved to sing for as long as she can remember. She went to a school run by nuns, "horrible, sadistic nuns who used to pull my hair". The one positive thing she took from the experience was a deep joy of singing in church. "I just thought it was so magical when all those voices would rise up and come together." Along with two of her sisters, Philipsz joined the local Catholic choir and whiled away much of her youth belting out three-part harmonies.

She studied sculpture at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in Dundee and it's this discipline that informs her work today. Her songs, she says, are "sound sculptures". Each one – whether played in a gallery, under a bridge or over the Tannoy in a Manchester Tesco Metro – is designed to make her audience alter their response to each particular space. "It's all about how the emotive and psychological effects of sound can heighten your awareness of the space you are in," she says. "It felt like a very natural progression to go from sculpture to sound."

The fact that her singing voice isn't anything special is crucial. "Everyone can identify with a human voice," she says. "I think hearing an unaccompanied voice, especially an untrained one, even if it's singing a song you don't know, can trigger some really powerful memories and associations. If I'd gone to music school and had proper training, I would not be doing what I do today."

I first came across Philipsz in 1994 when she was in Belfast doing an MA at the University of Ulster. She had just made her first ever sound piece, entitled Safe – a rendition of a lullaby from the opera Hansel and Gretel which she played down a chimney breast in a former old people's home in Lady Dixon Park. She was living with her now husband, photographer Eoghan McTigue, in an archaic former Victorian girls' school called College Green in South Belfast. The couple met in their local pound shop. "She doesn't remember," says McTigue, "she was too busy inspecting a small plastic toy."

College Green had been artists' flats for decades; apparently Oscar Wilde and Errol Flynn used to stay there and there were rumours of all sorts of shenanigans. Philipsz found herself living next door to Phil Collins, video artist, filmmaker and Turner nominee in 2006. The pair quickly bonded over their love of music. "Every time they got together," remembers McTigue, "they'd start singing Bowie albums. They would start with the first song and work their way, track by track, through the entire album."

I came across Philipsz again when she and Collins were exhibiting at their first big international show, Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana in Slovenia, in 2000. She recorded a version of the old socialist anthem "The Internationale" and played it under a public walkway in the city centre. "That was a totally career-changing show for me," she says, "it got me a lot of attention." She chose the song because, when delivered in her voice, it became ambiguous whether it was a rallying call to political action or a lament to the past. Central to the work was the fact that Slovenia had not long gained independence from the Soviet Union. "One of my enduring memories was seeing a group of elderly women standing stock still silhouetted in the underpass, humming along to it. One of them was crying. It was amazing."

That night we were invited to a lavish party on the lawns of the house in the centre of Tivoli Park. My enduring memory of the evening is of later on, of Philipsz and Collins propping up a bar and, true to form, working their way through Bowie's Low, including all the tricky instrumentals on side two.

If Philipsz's recognition has been a long time coming it's possibly something to do with the medium she works with. Sound art can be intangible and difficult to grasp and, what's more, presents no striking images of sharks in formaldehyde, or whatever else, to give an identity to the artist. "It has been really quite hard," she says. "For a long time I was always busy with my art, always in shows, always travelling, but I never had any money, really no money."

In 2005 Philipsz was signed up by Isabella Bortolozzi Gallery in Berlin, where she now lives. Then, in 2007, she was invited to show at the Münster Sculpture Project in Germany, an exhibition so prestigious it happens only once a decade. For this she split the soprano and mezzo soprano parts of a duet from an operetta called The Tales of Hoffmann and had them play from opposite sides of a lake 150m across, as if one voice is calling out to another. After that Tanya Bonakdar gallery in New York signed her, too. "That's when everything changed," she says, "that's when I realised, actually it can be done."

Last year she married McTigue, in a party in Berlin so raucous the police were called. And he, along with her technical operator Frank Bode, now plays an integral part in Philipsz's work. "We live and breathe art 24/7," she says, "but it's good because I really can't do it on my own any more."

In the gallery at Tate Britain it's interesting to see how people respond to her work. One man inspects the speakers as if they are a work of art in themselves. A girl in DMs and laddered tights draws a floorplan of the gallery, meticulously marking the location of each speaker in her tatty notebook. Most just sit on the bench listening. "It's nice to hear all three voices coming in at once," one visitor says to me, "but beyond that I'm not sure what to say." On the internet someone posted afterwards: "I haven't stopped crying – I mean really WEEPING – since I experienced that glimpse into Susan Philipsz's "Lowlands" – beautiful." While another writes: "Sound art. Is that not what mere mortals call music?"

I wonder how Philipsz responds to this criticism. Is she, I ask, a one-trick pony? "That's not true," she says, horrified. "My work is always different. I always start with the location in which the work is set, that's what then gives me the idea for the song. The only thing that is the same is the medium I use, which is my voice."  It is, I guess, a bit like criticising a painter for always using paint.

Despite her success and all her years in the art world Philipsz remains refreshingly unaffected. On the night of the Turner opening, she held an after party at the Arts Theatre Club in Soho, but forgot to tell her friends. "It didn't matter in the end," she says, "I still danced until dawn." And when she takes me on a tour of "Surround Me", her six-part sound installation in the City, commissioned by Artangel, she manages to lose her work. "I know it's near here somewhere," she says, hurrying through an alley. We stop to ask three lots of people directions before McTigue finally has to come back to rescue her.

At London Bridge, Philipsz's voice rebounds off the architecture so it sounds, eerily, as if it's coming from the middle of the water. In the desolate Moorfields Highwalk, surrounded by empty offices, she sings the alto, bass, tenor and soprano parts of a 16th-century madrigal. And in nearby Milk Street there's a seven-part instrumental called "Lachrimae", each part based on a different falling tear.

Philipsz does seem drawn to dark songs. The song at London Bridge can be interpreted as a cry from those who have disappeared beneath the waters of the river; and "Lowlands" is about the ghost of someone coming back to make a final farewell. "I think people are fascinated by mortality," concludes Philipsz. And, as we walk away, the sound comes after us, as if it doesn't want us to escape.

The Turner Prize 2010 exhibition runs at Tate Britain until 3 January; Philipsz discusses her work on 26 November at 3pm. For tickets visit tate.org.uk/tickets or call 020 7887 8888. Surround Me continues until 2 January. For details, go to artangel.org.uk/surroundme


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October 09 2010

Passionless prize

Tate Britain, London

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true. This miserabilist's charter came to mind at Tate Britain this week. For the 2010 Turner prize has righted the wrongs of many years and, in theory at least, accomplished everything one could reasonably hope for, and yet it remains imperfect.

This year's shortlist, for instance, is not sensational, modish, tendentious or obscure. The judges have not broken any unspoken rules. None is in charge of a gallery where a shortlisted show took place; none has a professional relationship, as far as I know, with any of the artists. There are no obvious conflicts of interest.

Nor does it strain credulity to imagine that the judges might actually have seen the art in person, as opposed to viewing the works on video or slide. The shortlisted shows were happening here in Britain, not in Eindhoven or Texas, as in years gone by. It is even possible that the public nominations were for once heeded, rather than binned. For some of the shows – Dexter Dalwood at Tate St Ives, Angela de la Cruz at Camden Arts Centre – were both popular and critically praised.

And while some proportion of these facts may have been true in the past, what is so unusual this time round is that we too can see (or hear, in Susan Philipsz's case) the shortlisted art in Tate Britain. Instead of four tranches of new or different works by the shortlisted artists, we have the opportunity to experience a good proportion of the art selected by the judges. We are in their position.

Which is why it pains me to report that this is not the best of shows, however much one might respect both artists and judges. It is beautifully displayed, concise, undoubtedly representative, indubitably serious. But it falls fairly short of exhilarating.

Take Dexter Dalwood, currently tipped as favourite by William Hill. Dalwood is a painter of strength and wit; his pictures touch upon the limits of the imagination.

In the past he has painted interiors that exist, or must once have existed, but were necessarily imagined – Che Guevara's mountain hideout, Jimi Hendrix's last resting place, the Queen's bedroom (with a single-bar heater). The protagonists are always absent, but their presence evoked in the image.

If that were all, Dalwood would not be the modern history painter he is. The Bay of Pigs, the Brighton bomb and Greenham Common have all been portrayed in recent works constructed like out-of-kilter collages full of abrupt stylistic disjunctures. Death of David Kelly has a pale moon rocking in a midnight-blue sky, uninflected as a child might paint it, sadness in its stark simplicity. By contrast, the brown earth below is an open wound of ab-ex brushstrokes: a painfully adult enigma.

In White Flag, Jasper Johns's eponymous white painting of the stars-and-stripes flag appears solid, forming the wall of a compound, its shattered floor strewn with the hookah pipe and Arab slippers from one of Delacroix's Arabic paintings. Every motif in Dalwood's picture acquires a double meaning – eastern-western – by juxtaposition, clinched by the political pun of that title.

But though there are trenchant concepts here, this is by no means the best of Dalwood's recent work. I remember a painting about the execution of the Ceausescus that sampled Baselitz and Goya to terrifying effect, and none of these pictures has anything like that power. Ipso facto, I should stop wishing to see only the shortlisted works.

Another moral easily drawn from this show is that not everything survives Tate Britain. Those who heard the recording of Susan Philipsz's clear, sweet voice singing that melancholy ballad "Lowlands Away" beneath the George V bridge during this year's Glasgow international art festival knows that it drifted out across the water to poignant effect, its lament for a drowned lover now seeming to commemorate all those who drowned themselves there in the Clyde.

These recitals are by definition site-specific. The 16th-century ballads currently issuing from discreet speakers around the City of London put you on the spot, make you mindful of the Shakespearean past. If Philipsz is an artist at all, it is by this fine application of sound to place. At Tate Britain her work dwindles into a pleasant recording.

The Otolith Group – aka Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar – has turned its gallery into a cross between an arthouse cinema and a seminar room, complete with desklights and books.

On screen you can watch Otolith III, a film initially inspired by one that was never made, Satyajit Ray's 1967 The Alien. The characters from that film are now looking for people to play them, literally searching the streets, alternately hopeful and frustrated; precisely the feelings engendered in the viewer, especially one unfamiliar with The Alien, let alone the critical accretions surrounding its legend.

More compelling by far is Chris Marker's 13-part television series on Ancient Greece. The Owl's Legacy (1989) featured George Steiner, Elia Kazan, Cornelius Castoriadis and many others offering violently contrasting views on Greek culture, from democracy, mythology and music to philosophy and sex. The Otolith Group's contribution is to screen the series on 13 sets simultaneously: emphasising the brilliance of its montages as a montage.But that is secondary compared to the challenge issued to British television executives to broadcast this stupendous series again now.

The remaining contender, Angela de la Cruz, makes sculptures out of paintings, monochrome canvases that are made to behave like real people. Weary, slack, crumpled, slumped, coming apart at the seams, they are stretched past all endurance. A yellow canvas hangs as if over a hooded body, irresistibly proposing the torture victims of Abu Ghraib. Other forms are bent double, battered, collapsed on the floor, anthropomorphism made manifest.

This is a perfectly good selection of de la Cruz's work. She deserves to win as much as Dalwood, but certainly no more than so many other artists showing during the Turner year: for instance Fiona Tan, Willie Doherty, David Shrigley, Katie Paterson, Marcus Coates, Kutlug Ataman, Tacita Dean, Luke Fowler, Rosalind Nashashibi, in no particular order. Which reminds one that this show only represents the taste of five judges, first to last, and nothing more this year – thankfully not the zeitgeist, the market, or the politics of the art world, but nor its passion and excitement.


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October 04 2010

Dark nights of the soul

From mangled canvasses to disembodied voices singing Scottish laments, the entries for this year's Turner prize are mournful, tough and beautiful, says Adrian Searle. So which of the four contenders should win?

This year's Turner prize exhibition at Tate Britain in London has got soul, passion and intelligence. It resounds with echoes of past music and quotations of past art, as well as all the usual argy-bargy and din that surround the annual prize itself.

Ever since he was a student in the early 1980s, Dexter Dalwood has been interested in producing a kind of narrative painting – art that tells a story. Using De Kooning licks and Rauschenberg drips, his work splices references to famous 19th- and 20th-century paintings into scenes that depict real people and situations: William Burroughs in exile in Tangiers, the mysterious death of weapons inspector David Kelly in the Oxfordshire countryside, the Greenham Common protest, the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dalwood's human subjects never themselves appear, though their presence and absence is signalled in all kinds of sidelong ways – a pair of slippers and a hookah on a step, a typewriter on a table in Burroughs's room, the wobbly moon hanging over the hill where Kelly died. There are no nukes or protesters in Dalwood's painting of Greenham Common. The author of The Naked Lunch is not at his desk – perhaps he's out scoring drugs or a boy. Instead, Matisse's Moroccans fill Burroughs's bed, and Rauschenberg's brushstrokes and a Cy Twombly scribble mess up his room, like so much mental clutter. Dalwood's attempt to track down the junkie-modernist author in Tangiers is waylaid by all that art.

Dalwood's work forms a narrative of art both contaminated and informed by life. In White Flag, Jasper Johns's white-on-white stars and stripes forms the wall of a compound. Smashed slabs litter the ground, a reference to Hans Haacke's work in the German pavilion at the 1993 Venice Biennale, when the artist tore up the marble floor, an explicit response to the pavilion's Nazi past. Dalwood's paintings are suave and clever, but recontextualising and quoting great art doesn't by itself make you great. Witty though they are, these works are too big, too flat, and suffer the same mechanical failings as grand 18th- and 19th-century history paintings. Spotting the references is apt to make you smug, like shouting answers at the telly while watching University Challenge.

Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar, the Otolith Group, have turned their space into a kind of darkened seminar room. Lamps illuminate pamphlets on a table. You can sit and read, ponder the 49-minute film Otolith III, projected on to the end wall, or sit with headphones watching The Owl's Legacy, a rarely seen TV series by veteran film-maker and artist Chris Marker about the legacy of ancient Greece, whose 13 parts play on 13 monitors. By showing Marker's work in their Turner space (and retitling it Inner Time of Television), the Otolith Group are presenting us with what they call "a monument to dead television". Words, words, words. More words, quotes by Marker and others, emblazon the walls.

The Otolith Group, at one level, are dismantling the idea of a "Turner prize show". They swamp you and eat your time – you could spend the day in here – which is either to signal that they don't care about winning the prize, or that they want to overwhelm the opposition. "I want more life, father," says the boy in Otolith III, a film that contains fragments of other films and is intended as a kind of prequel to legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray's unmade The Alien. If Dalwood demands of his viewers a certain art historical diligence and knowledge, so the Otolith Groups's film works demand a familiarity not just with auteurs, but also goings-on in the underground art and film scenes of the patchouli-drenched late 1960s. Good Lord, there's the young David Medalla up a ladder at a happening at London's Arts Lab. And there's a painting by Jannis Kounellis floating by. The details accumulate.

But what matters? We see old footage of London, still struggling out of postwar austerity well into the 60s, while a voiceover invites us to search for possible actors among stock footage of pedestrians on the street, asking, "Could this gent play Arthur C Clarke?"

It is all very reminiscent of Marker and of the Black Audio Film Collective, whose work the Otolith Group curated in a major travelling show. The Group might well be accused of pretension (and what's wrong with that?), but what they really have is ambition. Otolith III must be seen from beginning to end in order for it to mean anything. It also has a kind of passion and sadness that means I want to watch it again. If one thinks it is derivative – well, nothing comes from nothing, and originality means going back to origins.

A galumphing, ridiculous act

Much has been made of the formal correspondences between the work of Angela de la Cruz and the late American painter Steven Parrino, who died in 2005; the New York Times's art critic Roberta Smith flagged up the connection in a 1998 review of her work. If De la Cruz's paintings have in the past paralleled some of Parrino's formal gambits and deconstruction of painting's surface and support, she recast the idea of the wounded, damaged painting in terms of her own body image and sense of human vulnerability.

For De la Cruz, even the business of painting became a galumphing, ridiculous and accident-prone act. Her paintings and sculptures may be knocked-about as well as knockabout, but there is a great deal of personal abjection in them. She also lets the muck of daily life in, the frustrations and absurdities of painting, of creativity itself. Each work is a kind of personage, or a plight, or an uncomfortable and sometimes funny situation. Her work is also painful – the broken chair on top of a rickety stool could be taken for a self-portrait, the filing cabinet and paint-rimed metal box jammed together on the wall a kind of collision of bodies, her dangling, mangled canvases fighting gravity, twisting in the wind, flopped hopelessly on the floor. Her Turner prize room is a tough, emphatic display.

Her best and biggest show, in Lisbon in 2006, took place soon after De la Cruz suffered a debilitating stroke, and it took a long time for her to start working again. Both her Turner exhibition and her Camden Art Centre show earlier this year have focused, mostly, on work made prior to her stroke, which interrupted an increasing concern with sculpture and objects. I think De la Cruz is in a moment of transition.

Who will win the Turner?

The final gallery is almost empty. Three audio speakers are hung low on the walls. Daylight falls in. Susan Philipsz's unaccompanied voice fills the space, singing three slightly different versions of the Scottish lament Lowlands Away, the voices moving together and apart, the variations in the lyrics and intonation creating dissonances, harmonic beats, a palpable friction. It is beautiful. As you move around the room, the voices cleave you and steal your heart. The experience is also very sculptural. I found myself thinking of Richard Serra, and the way he makes you feel your own presence in a space.

I first heard Philipsz's Lowlands when it was broadcast beneath a bridge on the Clyde at this year's Glasgow International festival. The effect in a room is utterly different, the voices turning in on themselves instead of lilting over the water and echoing under the bridge. This weekend, and every weekend until January, her voice also echoes and drifts in corners, alleys and courtyards in London's financial district. In this separate project, Surround Me, A Song Cycle for the City of London, Philipsz sings sad and yearning 16th- and 17th-century madrigals by John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and their contemporaries.

Her voice glances off glass-and-steel office buildings, leaks down alleys and resonates below London Bridge. Unlike walking around with an iPod, the music inhabits the space rather than your head. It follows you like a rumour, dogs your steps, disappears in the traffic. You find yourself looking for it, and searching for what cannot be seen. Susan Philipsz should win the 2010 Turner prize.

Turner Prize 2010: see artist profiles and more images from the show – plus give us your verdict at guardian.co.uk/turnerprize.

Win two tickets to an exclusive private view and guided tour of the Turner Prize exhibition at guardian.co.uk/extra


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September 14 2010

Susan Philipsz turns the screw

Clever old Susan Philipsz, who is nominated for this year's Turner prize. Following the opening of the prize exhibition at Tate Britain on 5 October, there will be a chance to encounter more of her work in the streets of the City of London. The project, organised by arts producers Artangel, will, I imagine, lift her chances for the big prize. Surround Me, which launches on 9 October, is a collection of site-specific sound works that visitors to the City at the weekends, when the throb of traffic and workers on the move has ebbed away, will chance across, hearing recordings of her gentle, untrained voice singing a series of English renaissance songs. These include New Oysters, Thomas Ravenscroft's round for four voices published in 1609, which can be heard at Change Alley; John Dowland's Flow My Tears (1609) at London Bridge, and a favourite of mine, Orlando Gibbons's 1612 round The Silver Swan, which will be sited at Tokenhouse Yard. It contains the immortal lines: "Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!/ More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise." Most of the other songs are almost as cheerful.


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May 07 2010

Sound art is here to stay

Sound artist Susan Philipsz's inclusion on the Turner prize shortlist should make Britain sit up and listen

The presence of Susan Philipsz, an artist who works primarily with sound, on the Turner prize shortlist is welcome but overdue recognition for a major part of our cultural life. Sound art is nothing new: it has its roots in the early 20th century, with the dadaists and futurists – perhaps even as far back as prehistory, when someone first hung a gourd rattle in a tree just because they liked how it sounded when the wind blew.

And, in London at least, the sound art scene has never seemed so vibrant: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's guitar-playing finches at the Barbican; Florian Hecker's solo exhibition at the Chisenhale gallery; the extraordinary range of work at the AV festival; and Bill Fontana's installation River Sounding in the light wells under Somerset House. The Turner judges have taken the first step in what will turn out to be a long and interesting journey .

But what actually is "sound art"? The answer is that it's hard to define narrowly. There are fruitful overlaps with contemporary classical composition, experimental rock music and improvisation. Sound artists use everything from sine wave generators to lectures, wildlife recordings, public space, bell ringing, electromagnetic fields – even the odd folk song.

More importantly, perhaps, sound art can be as much to do with the act of listening as it is with making the work. Many of us now live in a world of visual and auditory overload. We happily make do with a pixelated version of music on our MP3 players, and end up hearing things we do not want to. We tolerate buildings and public spaces that look OK, but sound terrible. We eat and shop in places where music and noise are calibrated just short of inducing hysteria. We stick our fingers in our ears when trains screech on dirty tracks. For those of us who live under flight paths or in hectic, noise-filled cities, the recent cloud of volcanic ash brought with it something astonishing – the revelation of hearing the sound of birds and insects for the first time.

Clearly it would be daft to claim that sound art can be instrumental in resolving all, or any, of the above. But maybe it's a start. And, as a more modest proposal in the meantime, I would suggest that taking some time out to visit Fontana's River Sounding, or Chris Watson's forthcoming Whispering in the Leaves in the Palm House at Kew, or Paul Rooney's sound work McKenzie in Liverpool later this month. All will change how you listen to the world.


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May 04 2010

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