In The Studio: Susan Philipsz, artist

'I thought people would say, "This isn't art!" But they are receptive to my ideas'

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The Independent Culture

"Are you really one of six daughters?" Susan Philipsz, the sound artist, has an expressive face with large eyes that roll heavenward and she says, "Wiki again!" Philipsz is indeed one of six children, but she has two brothers, who are sick, she says, "of being rewritten out of history". I am embarrassed about walking into the internet trap, but we laugh together and the awkwardness soon passes. 

Philipsz, who studied sculpture in Scotland and Belfast and later completed a year-long residency in New York, now lives and works in Berlin with her partner and studio manager, Eoghan McTigue.

By the time Philipsz won the Turner Prize in 2010, she was no stranger to success, her sound works having been included in the Melbourne Bienniale (1999), Manifesta 3 (2000), and the prestigious Sculpture Projects Muenster (2007).  She is currently exhibiting in dOCUMENTA 13 and the Edinburgh Festival. 

Dominating the large end wall of her bright studio in the Schöneberg district of Berlin is a sculptural arrangement of speakers and wires, the blueprint for an installation for Philipsz's next gallery show this autumn in New York. The studio is dominated by two workstations with Apple computers and a standing microphone, ready to record. 

Philipsz often uses her own voice, untrained, she says, although she sang in her parish choir when she was growing up. Her parents were religious and they did the rosary as a family every evening. It was when Philipsz became a teenage activist and began singing in a militant-socialist African choir that she says they "encouraged her to leave home" as she was '"indoctrinating her younger brothers and sisters".

Philipsz has reconciled with her parents and continues to be very close to her siblings. She recently used all four of the girls' voices in Close to Me,  a work commissioned to commemorate the Pope's visit to Milan and now permanently installed in the San Gottardo chapel there. The work features a hymn Philipsz performed as a teenager in 1982 on Pope John Paul II's visit to her native Glasgow. 

Philipsz says that although she studied sculpture, she never practised sculpture, as she became increasingly aware "of the physicality of singing, breathing, and projecting sound and how its presence defines architecture." She admits to having doubt at the beginning of her career, saying, "I honestly thought people would say, 'What the hell is this? This isn't art!' But people are receptive to my ideas." 

Her work fills the spaces for which they are conceived with a physical presence and as she says, "I am sculpting with sound." Her work for the Edinburgh Festival will be a "chordal thread" of sound played daily at 1pm, weaving a mile through the city and lasting under a minute. Philipsz plays it for me and it hangs hauntingly in the air, then turns and comments prosaically, "It sounds like a train."

Susan Philipsz: 'Timeline', Edinburgh Art Festival (0131 44 226 6558) to 2 September