....Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish Citizen and artist Matt Baker

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Susan Phillipsz – public or private art?

Big congratulations to Susan Phillipsz on being awarded the 2010 Turner Prize, I hope she will get many fantastic opportunities to make new work as a result. It is also great for Scotland that another of our artists is getting this recognition.
The popular media is making much of the fact that Phillipsz is a ‘sound artist’ – which seems pretty irrelevant and just an attempt to keep the ‘controversial’ Turner Prize story alive. I am more interested in the type of spaces that the artist uses: for those unfamiliar with her work; typically she places a recording of her singing in a public space. Here is an excerpt of the work ‘Lowlands’ for which she was nominated.
The site for 'Lowlands' was under three bridges on the Clyde in Glasgow

The reason for this blog post is that according to many definitions of public art then Susan Phillipsz must be considered a public artist, because she makes work out with ‘traditional art spaces’ (SAC). I have been writing recently about my own definitions of, and criteria for, criticism for public art and I feel very intrigued to try out these criteria on the example of Susan Phillipsz and her practice.
The recurring theme of Phillpsz’s practice is the combination of a very private recording with a consciously public space. She records herself singing (much is made of the fact hers is an ‘untrained voice’) and the atmosphere of the recording is that of a private moment – there is no ‘polish’ to the acoustic, this could be someone singing in the bath or rocking a baby to sleep. The SENSE (or intent) behind the work is in the act of playing that recording in a public space. Private person/moment is made public and given added resonance by the character of the particular space.
In terms of my proposition for public art to be defined according to the intent of the artist, I would argue that Susan Phillipsz’s practice is not public but rather ‘private’ in intent. My reasoning is this: Phillpsz has an a priori idea that is central to her practice (placing private sound in public space) therefore when she is making a new artwork she is simply looking for places in which this idea will work well. The body of work she is building is around the evolution of this central idea – not a concern for particular contexts.
It may be stretching things a bit….but framing these thoughts put me in mind of Henry Moore and the ‘modern’ tradition of public art. Moore believed that the function of a public space was to form a appropriate setting for his work, he was a formal sculptor at heart and saw the world as a succession of masses and planes which would either be in harmony with his piece of sculpture or not. It is very obviously part of Susan Phillipsz’s practice that the ‘setting’ for the sound work is fully part of the overall work rather than just a backdrop – but I find the comparison interesting in my quest to place this work relative to my definition of public art.
audience at 'Lowlands' Susan Phillipsz (Glasgow International)

Having visited the Lowlands work in Glasgow and seen film from the same soundtrack installed in the gallery in Tate Britain, I was positive that this was a work who’s intent was to have an impact on a gallery (private) audience. Next to the Clyde there was no gesture whatsoever towards engaging any audience other than those visiting the Glasgow International festival – no sense that anyone who worked on the river had any part in the artwork process or that the place was addressed in any meaningful way (other than lending a certain natural pathos). The mere fact that the work could be re-sited in a gallery and that this was equally valid as another public context for the singing, confirms for me that this work is ‘about’ an ‘art idea’ ....it is not art made ‘for’ a place. This in no way devalues the work (I do find Susan Phillipsz an interesting artist) – it is just, for me, this is gallery art not public art in any sense of that I understand.
'Procession' Jeremy Deller

In the context of the Turner Prize I think it is interesting to cite the example of another winner of the award. Jeremy Deller won in 2004 – he is someone that I would show as an example of an artist making public art in the terms I am defining (this is not true of the entirety of Deller’s practice but as I have said elsewhere artists do move between genres). 
In 2001 Deller staged ‘Battle of Orgreave’ a reconstruction of one of the pivotal confrontations in the 1984 national miners strike.  The work was created with the assistance of societies involved in re-staging historical battles (eg Civil war etc), was performed in the same spaces as the original event and many of the original miners and policemen took part.
'Battle of Orgreave' Jeremy Deller 2001
Watching the film (extract here) that Mike Figgis made of the event I wept – my tears were not solely for the emotions contained in the event, but because this was just such a GOOD bit of work.
‘The Battle of Orgreave ‘ is an example of an artist having an idea about a place/situation and then committing to the dynamic created between the idea and the place ....that dynamic ultimately became the work. An artist putting his art at the service of a situation.
I recently came across Deller’s work as an war artist in Iraq – he acquired a taxi that had been used in a suicide bombing and took it on tour for three months around the US. Deller was accompanied by two experts on the Iraq conflict and a writer, a public meeting was held around the taxi in each stop on the tour for US citizens to talk about the Iraq conflict. The Taxi and the documentation from the project are now part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum.
'It Is What It Is- Conversations about Iraq'  Jeremy Deller