The Absence of the Others

German Original:, January 30, 2016. "Die Abwesenheit der anderen"

The Scottish Turner laureate Susan Philipsz transforms the Kunsthaus Bregenz to an acoustic Holocaust memorial through music by Hanns Eisler.

You can hear her delicately and quietly from the treetops. The voice of a piccolo caries over the almost 400-year-old Jewish cemetery in Hohenems since this weekend with a melody you won’t recognize instantly. It is s special place, laying on a wooded hillside, stone steps lead through the roughly 370 preserved graveyards. From here you look down into the valley and onto a new Muslim cemetery, but this is a different story.

The story that the Scottish sound artist Susan Philipsz wants to tell here is the story of the Holocaust. For years, she felt this story and connected places with sound, suddenly making them places of remembrance. One example is the past Documenta 13, where one could see groups of people meditatively sitting and leaning on the end of a platform at the Hauptbahnhof Kassel. They listened to a weirdly displaced melody of strings coming out of the many speakers above their heads, just as if the wind would stroke over the power lines like strings. The “study for string orchestras” was written by the Czech composer Pavel Haas in the concentration camp Theresienstadt and were performed there shortly before Haas was murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Human transports had also left the Kassel train station.

In “Night and Fog”. The chain of associations that Philipsz currently lies out in Bregenz is more complex. She did not start at the Jewish cemetery, but with a visit of the Kunsthaus Bregenz with its green-gray glass facade, designed by architect Zumthor as an homage to the winter-fog hanging above Lake Constance. It reminded the Berlin-based artist of the first movie made about concentration camps, “Night and Fog” by Alain Resnais in 1955.

It was very present for her, especially because she is a specialist for the Austrian composer Hanns Eisler after various exhibitions, like for the Hamburg train station in Berlin in 2014. It was Eisler, who composed the score for Resnais’ movie. She had the piece re-recorded for the Kunsthaus Bregenz, but with only five instruments and every note by itself. Because every note has its own speaker, a complicated concept has the effect that one can move in the dimensional sphere, walking below the speakers.

Apart of the flute, that has its part on the cemetery – including the pauses when other instruments play one can’t hear – every floor in the Kunsthaus was assigned its own instrument – bugle, clarinet, bass-clarinet and on the top floor, the violin.

Philipsz uses a peculiarity of the Kunsthaus to her advantage: The floors are impossible to separate acoustically. You can hear the echo of each instrument on every floor. You can hear them from a distance, a word that is hugely important to Philipsz. Reverberation, echo, distance – everything works to the point that one has to listen carefully and concentrate on the story that you experience through the music. 

Instruments with war damage.

The entire Kunsthaus  evolves into an acoustic space, a Holocaust memoria that anchors on the cemetery, which is only a few kilometers away. You notice that Philipsz really comes from sculpting. She does not only use sound as her material, but also breath and the instruments that generate it. Thus, she had musicians play on war damaged instruments from a Berlin museum’s collection for a different installation. Photos of that work now are portrayed in the Kunsthaus next to prints from partly blackened files the FBI had on the exiled Eisler. It is the gaps, the unexpected silence, the absence of the other voices, that leave space for your own thought. Just as the gaps in the music in the melody with wich Philipsz is working.

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