The Yellow Wallpaper is best approached as a sound sculpture that works with architecture, rather than simply an audio installation. After exhibiting at BALTIC in Gateshead earlier this year, Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz has returned to the North East with this evocative commission at Belsay Hall.
Belsay is an empty 19th Century mansion in Northumberland, noted for hosting contemporary art interventions (usually group shows, by contrast to this one) in its landscaped surroundings and unfurnished rooms. Philipsz was invited as part of ‘Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience’ (see Corridor8’s reviews of other works in this programme).
Philipsz typically records her own unaccompanied voice, singing as though to herself rather than for performance, and blends plural tracks to be re-played ethereally in public spaces where some deep narrative resonance (often tragic, soulful or sweetly melancholic) can be felt.
There are two works here. ‘The Shallow Sea’ (2010), in Belsay’s huge cellars, plays at intervals a single-verse lament about an abandoned lover who dies of heartbreak, and references Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw.
In eight rooms above, synchronised variants of ‘The Unquiet Grave’ (2018) are also looped. Philipsz’ plaintive voice emanates from the chimney-flues, recounting this border ballad on another ghostly theme, to an ancient tune that devotees of Vaughan Williams and Van Morrison (among others) will recognise. Two other period stories, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe were inspirations here.
The Gilman story is an important literary work on feminist self-expression, but Philipsz does not develop this aspect. Undercurrents of societal relevance may, however, be sensed in implied themes of displacement and dislocation. Every room has an elevated window onto the wider life beyond, contrasting with the disembodied voices in the rooms which (like Gilman’s protagonist) are able to travel only around the walls. The most affecting moments are when a voice on one floor stops and is then heard picking up in some distant part of the building, as though spirited through the stone. The fireplaces themselves, perhaps like graves, are where flames of life once burned yet now only echoes remain. ‘The Shallow Sea’ might even be best appreciated from the floor above it, where the voices can be imagined to come from under the waves.
Philipsz designs work to have an emotional impact; but is equally interested in the sung voice as a ‘sculptural’ element, changing the ways in which structures and spaces are experienced. The choice of an arcing tune in the vaulted cellars, and a more ‘up & down’ melody in the vertically-proportioned rooms above, is doubtless no accident. The sounds pour into the rooms and fill them out solidly, like a Rachel Whiteread cast of negative space; and Philipsz ends up doing for bridges and buildings perhaps what Hanna Tuulikki has done for shorelines and flocks of birds.
Looped recordings in enclosed spaces always risk too much ever-present repetition. Here, however, the effect is perhaps more of a sympathetic addition to the fabric of the place. In fact, the work is probably best appreciated by giving time to enter into its cycles of repetition and counterpoint from one room to another, allowing the place to re-express its structure and its stories through sound.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.