This is an abbreviated version of my text. The full review can be read in:
Art Monthly, 395: April 2016
Susan Philipsz: Night and Fog
Kunsthaus Bregenz 30 January to 3 April
The sounds of woodwind instruments echo through the concrete spaces of Kunsthaus Bregenz, and the separated voices join across the floors into a harmonious melody. Susan Philipsz’s Night and Fog is an installation of ethereal beauty: the fragments of sound are wafting through the building, finding their ways along the accoustically brittle staircases, creating a sensation of music as much as a sensation of space. Visitors’ chatter immediately destroys the effect, however, and the sounds are best experienced in solitude – the galleries have to be empty.
Music is seductive, and the experience of a piece of music being assembled by one’s own movements through space is well tested. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Forty Part Motet, 2001, which slices Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Alium into its 40 different voices and plays each separately, is perhaps the best known; others include Sonia Boyce’s experiment with three different choirs singing different, unsynchronised pieces throughout Gasworks’ Studios and Gallery in the 2000 exhibition ‘Licked’ and Ragnar Kjartanson’s The Visitors, 2012, a video installation that shows musicians in different spaces playing a single tune that comes together in the space of the exhibition.
What is it here? It is a fragmented piece of music in a complex space. For it to work beyond that and to add the layers of remembrance, connecting Kunsthaus Bregenz to the cemetery in Hohenems, it relies on the story of Nuit et bruillard. The film is integral to the understanding of Philipsz’s Night and Fog, yet it is shown in a space in the cellar, next to the bathrooms – from where the light emanates through a glass brick wall.
Simpler would have worked better. The photographic prints are superfluous and the exhibition needed a clearer decision about the presentation of Resnais’s film. If the film is integral, it needs to be shown properly, if necessary in a box within the ground-floor space; if it is not, leave it out. Showing it next to the bathrooms is demeaning. It is the decision between a piece about music and a piece about the Holocaust.
Axel Lapp is a writer, curator and director of MEWO Kunsthalle in Memmingen.