At the heart of Susan Philipsz’s Separated Strings at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery is “Study for Strings Sokol Terezín” (2023), a haunting yet poetic dual-screen film based on the story of Pavel Haas, a Jewish Czech composer. In 1941, Haas was deported to Theresienstadt (Terezín), Czech Republic, a concentration camp and Nazi propaganda project used to deflect genocide claims from the Allied nations during World War II. While at Terezín, Haas wrote several scores, including “Study for String Orchestra,” which he and fellow imprisoned Jews performed under duress for a 1944 Nazi propaganda film that conveyed life in the camp as idyllic. The same year, Haas and thousands of other prisoners from these productions were transported to Auschwitz and killed.
Philipsz’s film takes place in Theresienstadt, in the building where many of the propagandistic performances took place, including that of Haas. Echoing through the empty building are the sounds of the cello and viola performing his composition. Philipsz originally created the audio portion of “Study for Strings” in 2012, for Documenta 13. Adding the visual element to the audio underscores the composer’s absence. Two cameras explore the building, one following the sounds of the cello and the other the viola. They eventually travel into the underbelly of the building, descending the stairs and finally meeting in a dark basement. While some of Terezín fell into ruins, in particular areas where people lived in harrowing conditions, others were integrated into society and are still used today, including this building (currently used as a gym). The cameras explore the space, panning over concrete surfaces and dirt floors as if seeking to discover something. Yet nothing is discovered apart from absence and loss. The cameras pause on an oblong, discolored patch on the floor, an abstract reminder of the horrors that took place.
In “Study for Strings Sokol Terezín,” Philipsz offers a perspective on how the Holocaust can be depicted in art by avoiding dramatization and instead homing in on this original site and the overwhelming eeriness of the space. In the upstairs gallery is a 12-channel sound installation isolating Haas’s violin portion and performed in each tone on the chromatic scale. While powerful, the lack of visuals in this work intensifies the impact of the film as viewers can place themselves in the empty building.
Philipsz acts as both a conduit and a creator, using her artistic platform to give new life to Haas’s composition. While her creative decisions are crucial, she removes herself from the work; indeed she removes all human presence, emphasizing the absence of people. In doing so, she amplifies the story of Haas and the Jewish people brought to Terezín. Life in and around Terezín continued after Haas and thousands of others were killed. The film portrays a future that was taken from them. The show serves as a poignant witness to the lives and artistry of victims of the Holocaust.
Separated Strings continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 25. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.