This Installation Immerses You in a Texture of Reverberant Voices (and Darkness)

Oliver Gudgeon
Jan 26, 2019 · 6 min read

Susan Philipsz’s I See a Darkness is New Tate Modern Sound Installation

Susan Philipsz, ‘I See a Darkness’

The artwork this article is about

A sound installation called I See a Darkness in Tate Modern, London, UK. It’s located in ‘The Tanks’ on Level 0 of the Blavatnik building. The installation occupies one of the three large rooms of ‘The Tanks’ and opened late December 2018.

What it’s like to experience

Immersive in an ethereal way. Seven speakers surround you in a large industrial chamber, which is in pretty much total darkness save for a sparse scattering of nine LED lights (actually, more light comes from the open doorway to the chamber than is produced by the LEDs). The speakers are tall and thin, and are distributed across the chamber’s nine steel structural pillars or else fixed to the cylindrical outer wall. A singing voice sounds through the speakers, reverberating and echoing around the space to create a kind of immersive sonic texture. For a short time, a solo piano sounds.

Who the artist is

Scottish sound artist called Susan Philipsz. Based in Berlin, Philipsz creates installations using recordings of her untrained singing voice. She made history in 2010 when she became the first artist to win the Turner Prize with a sound artwork.

1. The installation fuses three unrelated pieces of music

The audio of the installation is comprised of three pieces of music, two of which are sung a cappella by the Philipsz herself and one of which is a single-line piano melody. The first piece is a melancholic song called ‘I See a Darkness’ (after which the installation is named) and it’s by American songwriter Will Oldham. As a call and response duet, this song uses two of the seven speakers. After a pause, a piano begins playing the opening melody of French composer Ravel’s 1899 piece Pavane for a Dead Princess (a kind of gloomy slow dance). After another pause the artist resumes singing, this time a nineteenth-century Neapolitan folk tune called Santa Lucia through four of seven speakers — it’s relatively positive like a song of reflective celebration.

The audio is on loop, repeating every seven and a half minutes.

2. The work makes you cross-reference two historically distant women who share a name

I See a Darkness draws a connection between two people who share the name Lucia: Santa Lucia (AD 283–304), an Italian Christian martyr, and Lucia Joyce (1907–1982), a professional dancer (and also the daughter of Irish writer James Joyce). Both led lives that ended in tragedy. Santa Lucia was executed during the Diocletianic Persecution in her early twenties. Lucia Joyce was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the 1930s and spent most of her life institutionalised.

While the sonic reference to Santa Lucia is obvious (the Neapolitan folk song Santa Lucia), the reference to Lucia Joyce is not. Lucia Joyce’s sonic reference is the second piece, the single-line piano melody of Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess: Lucia Joyce danced to this with a dance group called Les Six de rythme et coleur.

3. Voice is treated as a material, not an instrument

In the installation, voice is more of a tool than purely a performative component. Philipsz’s singing is the kind you’d do when you’re walking to the kitchen with a song in your head. It’s not unmusical or out of tune. But it’s not the type of singing you associate with recordings of music. It’s an everyday type of singing. This is a signature feature of Philipsz’s installations.

4. Sound is used as a sculptural and architectural element

“Singing is almost like a sculptural experience. Your inner space and what happens when you project sound into a room.” — Susan Philipsz

In I See a Darkness, sound is disembodied of its source in the form of recording. That disembodied sound is then dispersed around the room through both the use of numerous channels and the echo and reverberation which is a product of the room’s size and concrete surfaces. Philipsz sees sounds as something which can define space as though it is an architectural material.

5. You experience proximity and distance simultaneously

Sound bounces around the room until its energy is lost. By way of the fact the room is cyclindrical and concrete, a layered texture is created: on a bed of incomprehensible reverb, some voices jut out as though there are speakers where there aren’t. Philipsz’s voice seems, at times, very close. Yet, as you walk in the space, you encounter constant reminders that the sound is recorded — the human behind the voice is not present.

6. Using a metaphor as its basis, this work creates affect (over and above just sound)

The name Lucia is derived from the Latin word lux, meaning light. Light is an important reference in the work. While the work is in near total darkness, the two lives on which the work is based represent light. Philipsz’s work evokes the old metaphor of light signifying life and darkness signifying death.

This metaphor — taking life and death as opposing poles — becomes a kind of basis for creation of affect. Philipsz’s use of sound draws spatial and temporal emphasis to this metaphor. Sound kindles with the visitor as they explore the space, creating an atmosphere through the combination of sonic and visual components in the room. The work is supposed to be experienced, not just visited, seen or heard. A range of possible feelings and emotions extend from human relations to life and death — nostalgia, a sense of memory and tragedy — are made especially apparent through the proximity/distance contradiction of Philipsz’s recorded voice.

7. The work questions both the work of art as singular and the meaning of site-specificity

Philipsz actually created I See a Darkness ten years ago and its current tenure at the Tate Modern is its third instantiation. It was exhibited first in 2008 at Jarla Partilager, Stockholm, then in 2010 at Tanya Bonakdar, New York. Since space is such an integral part of the work, each exhibition of the installation will have made quite different experiences. This makes this installation an interesting point of discussion for debates around the identity of the art object.

Many sound art writers have argued that site-specificity is a key component of a work of sound art. But this part of their definition of sound art doesn’t always hold up when sound installations are exhibited in galleries. And, certainly, I See a Darkness fits the profile of a sound installation artwork that has a pretty unspecific relationship with its location. We could consider the possibility that each iteration of I See a Darkness may be an entirely different work (say, where I See a Darkness + Level 0, Tate Modern = one work), but even then, there really is little that relates work and site other than one being an artwork and the other being an art gallery.

8. Philipsz’s installation is one among a phenomenon of contemporary artworks in which visitors gain power and agency

“Artists do not wish to instruct the spectator. Today, they deny using the stage to dictate a lesson or convey a message. They simply wish to produce a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling, an energy for action.” (Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 14).

French philosopher Jacques Rancière argued that today’s artists are dissolving the distinction between spectator and spectacle. When the audience have freedom to treat viewing as an action, they become active participants.

Many works of sound installation are, at least loosely, based on the principle that visitors can wander in or around the work as they please and create their own interpretation of it.

I See a Darkness is one such work. There’s no real focal point of the sound installation other than the room itself. If it were a performance or art object, you would face a particular way. But in this work, the audience is free to explore the space, and in doing so experience the sound installation from any perspective they like.

From the time it takes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness to the myriad different versions of the work you can experience just by standing in different places, I See a Darkness is an immersive experience.

Oliver Gudgeon

Written by

Sound art writer and other stuff writer

Contemporary Sound Art

A publication about art that uses sound (among other materials)

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