Art

Susan Philipsz Transforms the Gentlest of Folk Forms, the Lullaby

From Hansel and Gretel to Rosemary’s Baby, Philipsz sings these bucolic songs of dark, and often violent, undertones.

Installation view of Susan Philipsz: Sleep Close and Fast at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — If a folk song is understood to say something about the human condition, then each new utterance of the song adds color to that understanding, every manifestation refracts new meaning contingent upon the listener. It’s this expansive nature of sound and music that is at the heart of artist Susan Philipsz’s practice. In her solo exhibition Sleep Close and Fast, currently on view at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in Hollywood, Philipsz complicates our understanding of that most gentle of folk forms: the lullaby. 

For over two decades, Philipsz has explored the physical and psychological potentials of sound: how sound shapes space and vice versa, and the capacity for sound to trigger memory. Her installations often involve little more than audio recordings of her own voice singing a suite of carefully chosen music, from centuries-old folk songs to modern pop ballads. She has mounted projects in train stations, underneath bridges, and in a Tesco supermarket. Her 2010 installation “Lowlands” featured three versions of the 16th-century Scottish lament. It won her the Turner Prize, the first for an artist working primarily with sound. Philipsz brings about a heightened awareness of your surroundings. At turns unsettling and ruminative, her work has the uncanny ability to both ground you in the present moment while transporting you to another time and place. 

Upon entering Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, you’re met by a series of photographs depicting the condensation of Philipsz’s breath on panes of glass. Elsewhere, two sculptures feature piles of steel organ pipes which emit the sound of the artist’s breath. The effect is jarring. The references to breath suggest the presence of life, but here, Philipsz’s presence is spectral, the soul without a body. 

Installation view, “VERNEBELT IV” (2016), chromogenic print mounted on Aludibond behind glass, and “TOGETHER IV” (2019), three organ pipes, sound recording, speakers, amplifier, media player 

A new seven-channel installation occupies the physical and metaphorical center of the show. Under skylights, seven stainless steel oil barrels project Philipsz’s voice singing lullabies gathered from literature, opera, and film. A percussive track set to the rhythm of her heartbeat keeps time. 

Her unadorned voice lets you focus on the emotional weight of the lyrics, whose bucolic melodies belie their dark and often violent undertones. In one excerpt from the Finnish folk poetry collection The Kanteletar, Philipsz takes the position of a resigned parent facing the prospect of a child’s death. Across cultures and histories, lullaby lyrics often allude to the fears and anxieties of the parent, despite the song’s intent to soothe a child to sleep (think of “Rock-A-Bye Baby” and its imagery of a cradle in free fall). 

Philipsz also sings from Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera Hansel and Gretel (1893), and three lullabies that were written specifically for cult horror films: Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), and Dario Argento’s Profondo Rosso (1975). In all three, the subtext of catastrophe inherent to the lullaby form is fully realized: darkness prevails, and the lullabies are the last thing that you hear before you die. 

Yet for all its morbidity the show left me with an unexpected levity. There is a certain perverse comfort in imagining the worst possible outcome: a preemptive way to steel your resolve against whatever hardships may come. The cosmic joke in the title installation is that each lullaby contains both the propensity to soothe and to portend doom. Still, within the confines of the exhibition space, I’m surrounded by signs of life — the artist’s breath, her heartbeat, her voice refracting centuries of song — and I remember that I have a body. 

Susan Philipsz: Sleep Close and Fast continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (1010 N Highland Ave, Hollywood, Los Angeles) through September 19. The gallery is open by appointment. 

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