A Single Voice is an installation in two parts that uses space and sound, taking existing musical artworks as a platform to explore themes of loss and isolation. The title piece in BALTIC’s level 4 gallery is large, open and grand: high ceiling, high notes, high art. Susan Philipsz takes Karl-Birger Blomdahl’s operatic adaptation of Harry Martinson’s epic science fiction poem Aniara and deconstructs it; taking out everything but the violin part, a lonely single voice calling out its distress signal. The artist uses the story of a crew lost in space as an allegory for human experience.
A giant screen shows a musician at work; the camera slowly circling around, spiralling like a satellite fixated on her. The violinist plays notes and refrains but her role is unclear, she is performing alone. The action of her listening and responding is alluring as she sits before a score and digital timeline. Lined up on either side of the screen are the pillars that hold speakers: the sounds come out but move from speaker to speaker. Philipsz’ reworking reveals itself only in part. There seems to be no beginning and no end, so one has to float around to gain an understanding of its form.
It is an interesting and compelling piece that feels more complicated than previous work by Philipsz, where the voice, or singing, is put out into urban settings; under bridges and in alleyways, the meaning inflected by the location and our presence in that place. A Single Voice was made to be in a gallery: the hall-like space displaces the sounds and encourages exploration. But wandering around a gallery is different to wandering through the side streets of a city. Is this new work about the psychogeography of a specific environment, the place where art goes and we get lost?
‘Ziggy Stardust’ (2010) is located in an annexe at the far end of the gallery and creates a more static, flattened experience. Leaving the looming screen and echoing notes of the violin behind, you enter a dark, enclosed space. A small light shines down from a corner of the ceiling, creating a patch of light in the centre of the floor, and a voice from a speaker sings David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust. The voice is Phillipsz’, untrained but pleasant. An ordinary voice: awkward, banal, cringe-inducing and sweet. Step into the spotlight and it sings down to you like an aural tractor beam. Philipsz draws upon that familiar experience of getting intimate with art in the way you do with pop music when you are young and alone. But ‘You’re not alone..’ Bowie/Philipsz sings – it is basic and direct.
The room is lined with black foam, like a recording booth, or the interior of the spacecraft created by Thomas Jerome Newton, the alien played by David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and this feels right somehow because the whole show evokes a feeling, speculative and alien, without the usual sci-fi cliches. The aesthetic of the recording studio, revealing an environment of technology driven production, refers back to a site specific attitude. We are reminded that this is art, an encounter that is sometimes alienating, but can be redeemed by a feeling of sympathy for your human condition.
A Single Voice, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, 20 October 2017 – 4 March 2018.
Lesley Guy is an artist and writer based in Newcastle upon Tyne.