City of London: various locations

On a grey December afternoon I stand in the cavernous space beneath London Bridge waiting for Philipsz’ piece “Flow my Tears” to begin. The Thames laps against the wall beneath me. Suddenly Philipsz’ seems to sing to me across the water:

“Flow, flow my tears, fall from your springs!

Exiled forever let me mourn…”

Her voice reverberates from the underside of the bridge, mingling with the sound of the flowing river so that it seems as if the Thames itself is offering up a lament. I feel as if I am transported to another place, another time. Then, just as suddenly as it began, the singing stops.

Flow my Tears is one element of Surround Me, a song cycle installed in six locations around the City of London. In the strange quietness which envelops the City at weekends, Philipsz’ voice echoes from the surrounding architecture in haunting renditions of songs from the end of the Elizabethan era. This is an Artangel project, timed to co-incide with the Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain (won by Philipsz for her piece “Lowlands”).

There is a deeply personal quality to Philipsz’ work. Her own untrained voice, her breathing audible, conjures up the sense of her physical presence whilst the sound literally gets inside the body of the listener, gets under the skin. The effect is powerfully evocative, creating the illusion of an intimate relationship as if, despite the public setting, this is a private performance containing a personal message for the individual listener.

The songs themselves speak of grief and death, taking us into our own recollections and associations. Merging with the ambient sound of each setting, they transport us into an area of experiencing between inner and outer worlds, the “transitional space” described by Donald Winnicott[i] in which the external world becomes imbued with memory and imagination. Of the six pieces, Flow my Tears is the most successful in achieving this merger between inner and outer: the acoustics of the space allow the song to blend with the sound of the river with its own connotations of disappearance. Perhaps least effective is the instrumental piece, Lachrimae, lacking as it does the intimacy of the voice and the all-important gap between songs. Philipsz’ voice offers the illusion of her physical presence, as if she is standing in for the one we have lost. The ending of each song leaves us bereft, catapulted back into the external world. This is reminiscent of the audio works of Janet Cardiff, particularly The Missing Voice[ii] (another Artangel project) in which Cardiff used her own voice on headphones to guide participants through the streets between Whitechapel and Liverpool Street, mixing her own dreams, memories and fantasies with references to landmarks on the way before abandoning them to find their own way back.

Darian Leader argues that the process of mourning involves creating something from the empty space of loss. Art can help by offering us a “frame for absence” within which we can “access our own grief and … begin the work of mourning”[iii]. The songs and silences of “Surround Me” provide us with just such a frame for absence.

[i] Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34, 89-97.

[ii] Cardiff, J. (2001- ) The Missing Voice. An audio walk from Whitechapel Library. An Artangel project.

[iii] Leader, D. (2008) The New Black: mourning, melancholia and depression. London, Penguin. p.207.