, Salem, MA

May 6, 2011

Voice of history

Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz uses sound to put museum collection in context

By Will Broaddus
Staff Writer

If the objects in the Peabody Essex Museum could speak, what would they say? If they could sing, what would their song be?

Visitors can hear an answer to these questions when they visit the museum's East India Marine Hall starting tomorrow.

Sound artist Susan Philipsz, 45, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, who lives in Berlin, has created an installation specifically for the hall, called "If I with you would go," that alternates singing with instrumentation and emanates from speakers set around the walls.

"When I came to the space, I was thinking, 'I would like to give voice to the things in the collection,'" said Philipsz, winner of the 2010 Turner Prize for an installation that featured the sound of her own voice singing a Scottish lament over the river Clyde in Glasgow. The Turner Prize is awarded in the U.K. to the year's best work of contemporary art.

In her exhibit on the North Shore, she is giving voice to items that Salem's sea captains brought home from voyages to far-off lands, and Philipsz chose a 16th-century Scottish ballad, "James Harris," to speak for them.

Eight versions of the song were published in 1882 in "English and Scottish Popular Ballads," which was compiled by Boston musicologist Francis James Child.

They tell the story of a woman whose lover goes to sea and then returns, but she has already given him up for dead and married another, with many riches. Only after he has lured her out to sea does she discover he is the devil.

Philipsz recorded herself singing each version, and they play on eight separate speakers. The versions vary in length from two verses to 27, and some are in an old Scots dialect.

"Depending on where you're standing, you can hear each version clearly," Philipsz said. "As you move through the space, you might hear one over the other."

The instrumentation features plaintive notes coaxed from the rim of a glass and is meant to evoke an abandoned ship, creaking as it sails through ice-bound seas, according to Philipsz.

"It's very atmospheric," she said.

Giving voice to the collection

Philipsz started her career as a sculptor, but found her art taking a detour after she started singing in a band, which made her aware of how her voice interacts with space, both inner and outer.

"I became interested in the spatial values of sound, so it became sound sculpture in a way," Philipsz said. "Sound can draw attention to a place, and it can create a new meaning."

If the historical associations of the ballad to the Peabody Essex collection helped Philipsz choose it, visitors to the hall will be led back to them by the sound of her voice, reaching into the space and breaking like waves.

"This is at the ground of what contemporary artists do today," said Trevor Smith, curator of contemporary art at the museum, who inaugurated the new Freeport series in which Philipsz is appearing.

Because Philipsz's sound works are immaterial, they can't be installed in their own space. Instead, they work among objects the museum already contains, Smith explained.

Just like the Salem sea captains, transporting objects from around the globe and from one culture to another, Philipsz's song sets the collection in motion by altering its setting and the way visitors experience it, Smith said.

"If you think about the museum as a world in miniature, you can travel to China," Smith said. "But one thing we're all trying to figure out is, what do these things have to do with one another?"

Philipsz's installation, by giving voice to the collection, "transforms it, transports it, puts it in a new context, in a dialogue," both with other objects and with visitors, Smith said.

Staff writer Will Broaddus can be reached at

If you go

What: "If I with you would go," sound installation by Susan Philipsz

Where: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., East India Square, Salem

When: Tomorrow through October

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