Feature

Susan Philipsz: We Shall Be All

The winner of Britain's prestigious Turner Prize has created an eight-minute work to commemorate Chicago’s labor history.

Museum of Contemporary Art
Chicago
Through June 12

So much of today’s conceptual art seems engineered to alienate the masses, said Janina Ciezadlo in Newcity. Then there’s the work of Susan Philipsz, a Scottish sound artist who in December took home Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize. Her latest project is an installation, commissioned by the MCA to commemorate Chicago’s tumultuous labor history, which at first is most striking for “its apparent simplicity and accessibility.” Called We Shall Be All, the work lasts eight minutes, during which time there is little for a visitor to look at but the text of a short poem projected on a screen. Yet “space and time are seemingly transformed by the introduction of the gentle, dreamy sound” of Philipsz’s untrained singing voice, heard in a recording. She is singing the Scottish tune “Annie Laurie,” which was reportedly sung by one of the protesters in Chicago’s bloody 1886 Haymarket Riot the night before he and seven others were executed.

To appreciate the effect, you have to understand the degree to which Philipsz has already taken command of your senses, said Margaret Hawkins in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Stand in a silent, completely dark room. See nothing except a blank screen. Try not to feel afraid, bump into anyone, or stumble and fall. Wait for a sound.” When Philipsz’s disembodied voice emanates from strategically placed speakers, it’s as though “someone is speaking to you (and you alone).” After a bagpipe interlude, We Shall Be All concludes with Philipsz’s “emotionally ambiguous” performance of Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Who By Fire.” The “insinuating lyrics allude to oncoming death and Judgment Day, but here they are rendered even more haunting for being drained of obvious menace.” And that’s Philipsz’s genius: She “refuses to tell us exactly what to feel.”

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