Linda Pace Foundation, San Antonio
Through June 26
by Chad Dawkins
Susan Philipsz’ Sunset Song is an artwork comprised of the artist singing the American murder ballad “Banks of the Ohio,” emanating here from hidden loudspeakers within the dense bamboo of the lush CHRISpark grounds. Philipsz created the work in 2003 as part of her Artpace residency in San Antonio. The title is derived from the fact that in its first manifestation, the piece played through solar-powered loudspeakers on the Artpace roof; as the sun went down the song would fade out. Much of Philipsz’ work, including Sunset Song and her 2010 Turner Prize winning piece Lowlands, has been described as haunting, memory-inducing or a means to heightened awareness of one’s surroundings. Rather than these emotive factors, it is the artist’s representation of history that is most striking about this work.
“The Banks of the Ohio” is an American folk song categorized as a murder ballad, a popular genre of the late 19th century. The song is a tale of a man who takes his lover on a walk along the Ohio River, and because she will not marry him, drowns her in the water. The song’s origin and author are unknown, and its history is cloudy. In the 1920s it was recorded by the Piedmont Log Rollers and subsequently performed by artists such as Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Olivia Newton John and, my favorite, Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. The song’s history parallels the histrionic format of the murder ballad genre itself, in which (sometimes) a lover (who may or may not be based on an actual person) kills or lets his or her lover die (which may or may not be based on an actual event) and (maybe) laments the action.
However, Philipsz’ creation involves something more than a reiteration of this lyrical theme. Philipsz fractures and mends the historical possibilities of the song to make it unique. Independent curator Maria Lind, in an online interview categorizes contemporary art of the last twenty years as originating from either a documentary or abstract practice. Lind asserts that much of this documentary work is rooted in a “culture of commemoration”— artists bank on nostalgia. Lind explains that a trend within this documentary practice is finding ways to complicate or reveal historical sources, or the “real” that inspires the artworks. For some, this involves a meditation of the documentary form itself or the employment of its abilities to mask or reveal realities. This way of working is related to Sunset Song. Using her own voice, Philipsz re-articulates information from the song’s own interpretive history. Philipsz complicates this found historical item through layering and fusing gender-specific lyrics traditionally sung by either male or female performers. These different lyrics have derived from the song’s popular covers of the last century. Taking the gendered versions at face value and incorporating them into one, Philipsz highlights the song’s evolution and the historical significance of the changes, while simultaneously subverting any linear understanding of such. The technology used to layer these coexistent versions creates an effect of a round or call-and-response musical form— both also important to the evolution of American music. Philipsz has transformed the beautiful dirge, divorcing it from any specific past by employing its history against itself.
Click here to listen to Sunset Song. Special thanks to the artist and the Pace Foundation.
Chad Dawkins is an artist and critic based in San Antonio.