Susan Philipsz: Sleep Close and Fast
On ViewTanya Bonakdar
July 15 – September 19, 2020
Tanya Bonakdar’s Los Angeles gallery might be the cleanest place in town. Like other institutions that have reopened since softening a months-long embargo on IRL access, the gallery has implemented protocol to ensure health and safety for all who cross its threshold. Masks, waivers, and appointments—along with a transparent partition wall that separates patrons from employees—declare the standards dictating the new gallery-going experience, at least as it goes in this West Coast metropolis.
Fitting that the exhibition on view, Susan Philipsz’s Sleep Close and Fast, should be so much about surface and breath. Most artworks on display are dated 2019 or 2020, suggesting their fabrication was a response to the pandemic; the inexact timeline of the coronavirus’s spread makes such a reading plausible. That the exhibition’s opening was postponed, due to the pandemic, from late March to mid-July perhaps suggests otherwise. Regardless, one cannot see beyond COVID at this time. The glass and steel material content in Sleep Close and Fast bespeak the disinfecting wipe-downs that businesses, including galleries, perform with regularity. The artworks advertise sanitation, a less comforting quality than it may seem.
A case in point: once I rented an Airbnb in Leipzig that turned out to be a sex dungeon. Smut and a two-way mirror notwithstanding, what I remember most was the overwhelming odor of disinfectant, which meant something had needed disinfecting. This memory came to me while considering the exhibition’s titular work, a sound installation from 2020 composed of seven steel oil barrels of different sizes, each fitted with a speaker that pumps a lullaby, sung by Philipsz, into its empty cavity. A possible exception is a recording of the artist’s heartbeat, but one could argue this is a biological lullaby: a mother’s pulse soothes the infant.
Other than the United Nations packaging codes—which describe a container's specific gravity, hydrostatic test pressure, and country of manufacture, etc.—the barrels lack identification and one cannot determine from any label which song comes from where. The effect creates a spatial sound mystery congruent with Philipsz’s source material; the lullabies cite, per the gallery statement, “a variety of sources including cult horror films, opera, and literature.” The tunes from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973), the latter of which provides the installation’s namesake, emerge distinct from the swell.
The beating heart of Sleep Close and Fast accentuates the symbolism of the oil barrel as a vessel for the lifeblood of the modern world, as a receptacle for the hazardous waste of the heartless world, and as a vehicle for the disposal of bodies. These grim associations belie the barrel’s sterility, and the absence of residue conveys the hidden presence of something unspeakable. From this perspective, the most disturbing element is the smallest barrel, which measures 23.5 by 15.5 by 15.5 inches, for it has the stature of a child’s coffin.
The funereal subtext comes as a surprise only if one is not paying attention, but it is nonetheless startling given the exhibition’s sleek and inorganic textures. The duality leads my mind straight to the smooth, machined counters in a forensic pathology lab. Even Together IV (2019) and Together V (2020), two sculptures made of bespoke organ pipes, gleam with an industrial elegance one might call “morgue chic.” Located at the gallery’s front and rear, Together IV and V bookend Sleep Close and Fast. The former consists of three pipes, the latter consists of four; all are stacked in the manner of a spur and each pipe measures in length somewhere between a shotgun and an arm. Like the barrels, these pipes resonate with prerecorded sound that is emitted by interior speakers. The sound itself that of the artist’s breath passing through their structures. Thus, Together IV and V hum with the memory of this intimate exchange, played back from within their own chambers like a stirring recall of a missing lover’s vibrations.
Another side to this bittersweet pleasure is the bitter recollection of unresolved loss alluded to in three chromogenic prints from Philipsz’s Vernebelt series (all 2016), which depict the artist’s breath condensed onto glass panes, prior to evaporation. Again, the gallery statement clarifies: “The title of the series [...] is a German word relating to ‘mist’ that was used to describe individuals who vanished without a trace under the Third Reich.” Despite the images’ relation to a respiratory mirror test, they evidence life not quite present—exhalations no longer belong to a vital body—but not yet absent, just inevitably so; they document disappearance in suspension, a kind of loss without conclusion.
Pandemic anxiety subsumes the demanding analysis required for appreciating Vernebelt IV, V, and VII in full because the photographs show the thing everyone fears: another person’s droplets—the sputum on the courtesy barrier. In this sense, these photographs contribute “aerosols” to the ghastly intangibles (sonic, psychic, historical) haunting the exhibition Sleep Close and Fast. Moreover, they illustrate the residues thwarting our best efforts to sanitize a situation impossible to clean.