Artist: Susan Philipsz
Location: Glasgow Bridge, the Caledonian Railway bridge and the George V Bridge, Glasgow, United Kingdom
Year of completion: 2010
Leon Tan

Lowlands is a large-scale sound installation by 2010 Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz, commissioned for the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art in 2010 (April 16-May 3). On her first site visit, the artist noticed flowers on the rails of the bridge, an anonymous memorial to a suicide. Taking this as a cue, Philipsz decided to base her work on a sixteenth century Scottish ballad “Lowlands Away,” of which there are three versions. According to the artist, “Each version tells the story of a drowned woman returning as a ghost to mourn the fact that she will never be with her lover again.” Philipsz created recordings of herself singing each version, and installed the recordings, each coming from a different speaker, at three bridges, the Glasgow Bridge (completed in 1772), the Caledonian Railway Bridge (completed in 1905) and the George V Bridge (completed in 1928).

The recordings began similarly, but each changed over the duration such that the different versions of the song overlapped at times. However, they always ended with a single voice. Despite the visibility of the speakers at the bridges, it was difficult for audiences to directly identify the source of the sound. This would have had the effect of amplifying the sense of disembodiment of the singing voice(s), an effect resonant with the song’s theme: the disembodied spirit of a drowned woman mourning the loss of her love. Combined with the contemporary conditions of those living under the bridges, of which the artist says, “There's lots of drug dealing and glue sniffing and Buckfast drinking here,” the aesthetic sense of the work might well be characterized as eerie or haunting.

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The untrained but tuneful voice without a body, magnified by the acoustic qualities of the bridges with their arches, not to mention the sound of water and the sight of its passage, was well aligned with the site, insofar as the bridges reflect aspects of Glasgow’s history over the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a history prone to the forgetfulness of cultural memory. For audiences, the work likely evoked personal memories as well, of lost or past loves, perhaps also serving as a reminder of the transience and unpredictability of experience and of life itself.

As far as placemaking projects are concerned, Lowlands is a work that demonstrates aesthetic sensitivity to the sites, to their sometimes-tragic histories as well as to their contemporary circumstances as a kind of seedy underbelly of everyday life. It is commendable for its skillful use of the medium of the voice in the public sphere, and for bringing together the Scottish past and present through the resurrection of a sixteenth century song. Stimulating quiet reflection and contemplation, it forged connections between the personal memories, imaginations and emotions of audiences and three historical sites. These connections are important in any placemaking endeavor, since they are the foundation upon which individuals and communities can invest themselves more in a space and commit themselves more to its future.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency