By James Murphy
Rooms of darkness, empty save for a two-sided projection and the reverberations of ethereal violin chords, currently inhabit the highest reaches of Newcastle’s BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Though just a few stories high, the spectator would be forgiven for thinking they had transcended the vaporous clouds of late February and had instead been jettisoned into outer space, not just for the engulfing blackness of 2010 Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz’s A Single Voice installation, but for the sensation of disjunction and removal her exhibit evokes. Separation, as a concept and as a bodily feeling, is fundamental to this haunting piece, whether it be from your senses, or from your surroundings.
Phillipsz’ absorbing artwork adheres to her established fascination with place, space and architecture. It is comprised of a cavernous chamber echoing with the discordant strains of Karl-Birger Biomdahl’s science-fiction opera Aniara (1959), and a tiny ante-chamber lit by a single pallid spotlight. In the ante-chamber, its cloth covered walls trap and stifle the sound of Phillipsz’ own untrained singing voice performing an a cappella rendition of David Bowie’s 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
Regardless of whether visitors are aware of the tale behind Aniara, a story of passengers on a spacecraft cast adrift to float forever amongst the stars, the continuity between the two spaces can easily be felt in the sense of eternity the blackened areas create. Despite the shine of a torch or phone screen showing the Ziggy Stardust exhibition to be no more than a few meters squared, the fragile mezzo-soprano of Phillipsz’ voice creates an eerie sense of emptiness that belies the size of the small room.
Despite the immersiveness of the installation and the sense of liberation (though a liberation into abject nothingness) it creates, the piece falls somewhat flat, devoid of much beyond a yearning for originality unlike any other in the BALTIC. The enormous space delivers an initially striking impression, but the wonder fades as the message of Biomdahl’s opera is lost in the dark, available only to the most knowledgeable buff. And the Ziggy Stardust room is emotive only in its stark contrast to the original album.
Where Bowie was experimental, flagrant, in your face and bold, Philipsz’s piece is sombre and uninspiring, a stripped down and diluted impersonation where all of Stardust’s eccentricities, the very features that defined the album and guaranteed its success, have been obliterated. No guitars, no effects, just Philipsz’ voice. The spotlight is a poor substitute for the Starman in the Sky.
Where this minimalism might be appreciated in other works of art, in this instance it just seems pale, blasphemous to Bowie’s genius. The primary issue, however, is the lack of creativity. Bowie’s album was creative. Stripping it down to a solo voice is not creative, but the opposite, like reducing the Mona Lisa to just its frame. The Aniara room suffers the same insufficiencies.
If you fancy visiting a mellow space where you can relax and reflect, this might be the exhibition for you, as long as the dark holds no terrors in your mind and you don’t suffer from false agoraphobia. But, like the emotions it seeks to convey, Philipsz’ physical and oracular experiment is empty, lacking the brilliance of the musicians her work has been born from, a poor child that will never fill its fathers’ shoes.
Photograph: Jesse Kruger via Flickr