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One and the Same

Susan Philipsz (Scottish, b. 1965)


Medium three-channel sound installation Measurements No Measurements Credit The Henry L. Hillman Fund Accession Number 2009.5 Location Not on View


Susan Philipsz's corpus of music, while always consisting of preexisting songs or "covers," spans a range of sources, including traditional folk songs, dirges, ballads, theme songs from films, iconic pop music, and nationalistic anthems. Chosen by the artist for their tragic, romantic, or melancholy lyrics, these songs evoke both personal and collective experiences and memories. Philipsz's voice is delicate and imperfect, in some instances resonating with clear accuracy and at other times gently warbling in tone, the result being closer to that of a promising amateur singer rather than the polished or perhaps even overly synthesized recordings of a professional. As with so much performance and street art in the 1970s and 1980s, Philipsz's work eschews leaving behind physical traces of her presence in the world. Through their ephemerality, as well as their subtle flaws and unpredictability, Philipsz's installations suggest a counterpoint to the increasingly slick and commercialized world of today's creative production.  Her transient installations, such as this work, One and the Same, 2008, explore the infinite possibilities of sound to sculpt both the physical experience of space and the intangible recollections of our memories. Commissioned for the Music Hall on the occasion of Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International, One and the Same's haunting melody has the ability to alter visitors' understanding of an architectural space and magnify their perception of the passage of time. It is the artist's intent that this work, though originally created for the Music Hall, can be flexibly adapted to a gallery situation or another site-specific situation in a public space. For this work, she selected a 16th century Scottish folk song that exists in three different versions known by the names "The House Carpenter," "The Demon Lover," and "James Harris." Philipsz first heard the ballad, which eventually became popular in America, on the album "Anthology of American Music" sung by folk musician Clarence Ashley recorded in 1952. The song recounts a tragic story about a married woman who is seduced by a former lover and taken away from her home. The lover, who is actually the devil in human form, lures the woman on to a ship, which he then destroys, drowning both of them and sending the woman to hell. As Philipsz studied the ballad, she noticed that each version of the song has a different ending but that they all describe the same three characters with varying emphasis. One and the Same takes its inspiration from the recurrence of the number three in each of the stories. The artist has said she was particularly interested in the relation of the number to the Trinity and the idea that a person or thing can exist in three parts. For the installation, Philipsz placed three speakers, each projecting a different version of the ballad, near the ceiling of the Music Hall. The speakers are equidistant from one another and form a triangle shape. As the songs play over each other, overlapping voices garble the lyrics and at times create dissonance, producing a dreamlike atmosphere. Visitors listening to the piece were intended to walk around the Music Hall in order to experience each individual ballad, as well as the combined effect of the three songs playing simultaneously.

Artist Bio

Scottish-born artist Susan Philipsz's haunting and ethereal sound installations transform buildings, rooms, and other architectural spaces into otherwordly environments. While she has also made films, her primary mode of production consists in recording her own voice singing a cappella renditions of appropriated music then projecting these in particular locations. Philipsz's transient installations explore the infinite possibilities of sound to sculpt both the physical experience of space and the intangible recollections of our memories.

Susan Philipsz graduated from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, Dundee, Scotland, with a BFA in 1993 and from University of Ulster, Belfast, with an MFA in 1994. Her work has been featured in solo exhibitions at venues such as Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York (2008); Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi, Berlin (2008, 2006); Mitzuma Art Gallery, Tokyo, and Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, Santiago de Compostela, Spain (both in 2007); Büro Friedrich, Berlin (2006, 2005); Malmö Konsthall, Sweden (2005); Kunstverein Arnsberg, Germany (2004); Ellen de Bruijne Projects, Amsterdam (2004, 2002); and Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin (2002). Philipsz has appeared in numerous international survey exhibitions, including Life on Mars, the 2008 Carnegie International; Skulptur Projekte Münster and Busan Biennale, South Korea (both in 2007); Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art (2006); Guangzhou Triennial, China, and Torino Triennale, Turin (both in 2005); and Triennial, Tate Britain, London (2003). She has recently shown in group exhibitions at venues including New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2007); Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma, Helsinki (2006); and Artpace, San Antonio, Texas, and (2003).

—From acquisition narrative, 2009, by Douglas Fogle and Karin Campbell