Michael Glover: Three cheers for sound artists. But not this one

Tuesday 07 December 2010 01:00

If we wanted to be slightly facetious, we could call it history in the making. Sound artists are on the march! Never before in the 26-year history of the Turner Prize has it been won by an artist who had nothing to show for her £25,000 prize money but sounds fabricated by her own voice.

It is all part of the sidelining of objects, of course. Once upon a time, art used to consist for the most part of dead, made things, of two or three dimensions. These things could be stolen or bought or, at moments of heightened emotional response, destroyed. Then performance art turned art into a fleeting, one-off occasion which could be documented, and time-based media robbed it of its thisness, its thinginess. Light sculpture made it more ethereal still.

Now, in this work by Susan Philipsz, there is nothing but what you can hear. You step into the gallery and you glance briefly at a trio of black speakers. Then you pause, and you listen to a three-channel sound installation, which is a version of a 16th-century Scottish lament for a dead sailor called "Lowlands", sung by the ghostly, untutored voice of a young woman, who is the artist herself. Not a bad voice, you think to yourself.

That the tracks of this same voice are layered, and slightly out of sync, means that it is quite difficult to catch the words. Does this matter? Well, yes – if lyrics ever matter. Is it arresting? Well, it's fairly poignant, though not, as the Tate hopes, "immersive". Nor does it redefine the physical space in which we are standing. That is hype-cum-hogwash.

Sound Art is nothing new, of course. Theo van Doesburg was a pioneer. Kurt Schwitters made marvellous sound art in the 1920s and 1930s; his voice sculpts and swoops through the air like a biplane out of control. At one moment it sounds like a bird, and then, moments later, like the rising notes of a revving car. Edith Sitwell was at it too with her fluty voice. As was Allen Ginsberg and Bob Cobbing.

Much of this work was playful, even irreverent or anarchic. It was trying to do something new with sound and words. It was playing with the language itself, roughing it up a bit.

Philipsz sounds neither playful nor irreverent. She sounds drearily poker-faced, as if she is trying to haunt us with her voice. She does not succeed. There is no reason not to be pleased that sound art has re-established itself, but the award of the Turner to this sound artist is a dismal decision.

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