Postcard from London Turner Prize Honors a Different Kind of Audio Installation

By Mel Lambert. The Turner Prize, named after the popular landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, and presented annually to a British visual artist under the age of 50, invariably attracts an amount of controversy. Staged since 1984 at Tate Britain in Central London and intended to “promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary British art,” the jury focuses on conceptual art; this year for the first time the Turner Prize was awarded to a sound installation.
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By Mel Lambert | content-creators.com

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The Turner Prize, named after the popular landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, and presented annually to a British visual artist under the age of 50, invariably attracts an amount of controversy. Staged since 1984 at Tate Britain in Central London and intended to “promote public discussion of new developments in contemporary British art,” the jury focuses on conceptual art; this year for the first time the Turner Prize was awarded to a sound installation.

Glasgow-born Susan Philipsz won the £25,000/$40,000 prize in early December for her work Lowlands, which is based on personal recordings of a haunting 16th century Scottish lament "Lowlands Away," a song that tells the tale of a man drowned at sea who returns to tell his lover about his death. The piece was recorded on the shores of the River Clyde and comprises triple-tracked versions of the haunting song, with each part emanating from a separate loudspeaker in an otherwise bare, white-painted room. Finding a suitable location equidistant between the speakers, the listener is greeted with a female voice that sings the song acappella, with the second and third parts starting slightly after the others but in acceptable synchronism and harmony. The result is both immersing and evocative of a lonely and remote location, helped in part by the natural reverberation of the outdoor recording and the added ambience of the reflective gallery space.

A trademark of Philipsz’ pieces is the use of her own voice to create uniquely evocative sound installations that play upon and extend the poetics of specific, often out-of-the-way spaces, including supermarket aisles and a series of bridges over the Clyde in Glasgow. Penelope Curtis, chairman of the Turner Prize jury, and director of Tate Britain, said that the jury “admired the way in which [the] work provokes both intellectual and instinctive responses, and reflects a series of decisions about the relationship between sound and sight.” The work “draws on the immersive properties of sound, and uses her own voice to create powerful sculptural experiences,” the jury considered.

With Lowlands, Philipsz says that she was looking to explore the “darker and atmospheric side” of her native city. “I am interested in the psychological effects of song,” she explained in a film that accompanies the Turner Prize show at Tate Britain. “People hear an untrained voice singing unaccompanied and find it quite strange. It is like putting something very private in a public context. Sound is very visceral; you have to respond to it,” she stated.

Having studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee and The University of Ulster, the artist now lives and works in Berlin. Previous Turner Prize winners have included The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - a shark immersed in formaldehyde - by Damien Hirst, Work No. 227: The Lights Going on and Off by Martin Creed, and My Bed from Tracey Emin. Philipsz is the fourth woman to win the coveted Turner Prize.

And sound figured prominently within this year’s New Year Honors List of civil and political awards presented semi-annually by the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II, and released on December 31. Eurythmics singer Annie Lennox was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her efforts with charities working to fight AIDS and poverty in Africa; she also founded the SING campaign, which helps women and children with HIV and is an ambassador for Oxfam, the international aid charity. “As somewhat of a renegade,” Lennox told the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, “it either means [that] I’ve done something terribly right - or they’ve done something terribly wrong.” Musician Richard Thompson also received an OBE, while Grammy-winning artist and producer Trevor Horn and TV theme composer Howard Goodall were named Commanders of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). The majority of the 997 people recently honored by HM Queen Elizabeth are local heroes that have made an impact in their respective communities.

Mel Lambert has been intimately involved with the international AV production industry for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content-Creators.com, a Los Angeles-based consulting service, and can be reached at mel.lambert@content-creators.com