Songs of Lament: Susan Philipsz wins The 2010 Turner Prize

Like the banshee of Irish and Scottish legend, Scottish artist Susan Philipsz keens songs of lamentation and loss that haunt those within hearing of the “sound sculptures” centered on her voice. For those unforgettable installations, Philipsz has won the 2010 Turner Prize, the most prestigious British contemporary art award and one of the biggest life-changing achievements an artist can realize today. Her win marks a strange milestone for The Turner Prize in that the intangible medium of sound has joined film, sculpture, and painting—the medium of choice for the prize’s namesake, J.M.W. Turner—as acceptable conduits for creativity. Some see crossing that barrier as going too far and raise their own hue and cry. But outside of the prize-awarding festivities, a different song of lamentation could be heard—the mourning over the impending death of the arts in England.

Dexter Dalwood, the bookies’ favorite to win (yes, the Brits bet on this kind of stuff) and the member of the shortlist working closest to what can be called a traditional style, will get a £5,000 award, as will fellow runners-up hybrid painter-sculptor Angela de la Cruz and filmmakers The Otolith Group. Philipsz takes home £25,000 and the claim to fame and/or infamy that comes from joining the ranks of previous winners Damien Hirst (1995), Chris Ofili (1998), and Richard Wright (2009). Traditionalists favored Dalwood’s modern take on history painting, but the twisty path of Turner history bent in Philipsz’s direction instead. “Dexter Dalwood's paintings seemed to me too brittle, too clever and contrived to win,” writes British art critic Adrian Serle. Serle praises Philipsz’s win as comparable to Tomma Abts’ 2006 Turner . “In both cases I was impressed by the artists' originality—not a word you hear much in contemporary art circles, their inventiveness, and the difficult yet accessible pleasures their art can give,” Serle reasons. Where some see sound as music and not Turner-worthy art, Serle sees an artist borrowing from another medium to create an installation just as many take from film, a once frowned-upon medium now commonly accepted in galleries and museums.

“I work with sound,” Philipsz explained in a BBC interview a few months ago, “but that sound is always installed in a particular context and that context with its architecture, lighting and ambient noises forms the entire experience of the artwork. It is a visual, aural and emotive landscape.” For those who claim that Philipsz’s art is purely immaterial and, therefore, not Turner-worthy art, the artist responds neatly that the sound is just part of the equation. The sense of place—literally the walls against which the sound echoes as much as the air and, often, water that carry the sound waves—makes up a good part of the effect, embodying her disembodied, recorded voice. (You can hear a clip of Philipsz’s voice singing “Lowlands,” a traditional Scottish lover’s lament for her lost sailor, beneath a bridge over the Clyde River [shown above] as part of an interview with Philipsz here.) For me, the true question of any Turner Prize is whether Turner himself would approve. Obviously, that takes a bit of time-traveling mind reading, but I can easily imagine Turner, besodden with his own love of the sea, falling in love with the way Philipsz uses water to amplify the power of her keening voice, which mourns in the lyrics the loss of a man to a watery grave, but in the placement among the decaying infrastructure of London sounds a different lament for the lost glory of a major city and, perhaps, an entire era passing before our eyes.

Part of that mourning for a passing era found embodiment in the form of approximately 100 students from London's art schools peacefully protesting the coalition government's “austerity” budget slashing of funding for the arts and humanities in higher education. (The recent debate over allowing museums to sell off collections to survive financially, which I discussed earlier, stems from this same budget crunch.) Gill Addison, lecturer at the Chelsea College of Art, explained that the protests were “not in opposition to the Turner prize but about the fact that our arts and culture are in jeopardy… It's about the future of the Turner prize. How can it continue without artists being trained?" How strong is a civilization if it allows its culture to crumble for the want of financial support? Philipsz herself had not problem sharing the spotlight with the protesting students. "My heart goes out to them,” the Turner recipient said in solidarity. “I really support them." Perhaps Philipsz’s songs of lamentation and loss are the perfect emblem of the state of the arts in London, which are nearing funereal proportions. Like a banshee at an Irish wake, whose song serves both to mourn the dead and ensure that the departed is really gone, maybe the combination of Philipsz art and the presence of the art students—the future of art currently in jeopardy—will wake the masses to the need to save the dying arts before it is too late.

[Image: Susan Philipsz. Lowlands 2008/2010. Clyde Walkway, Glasgow. © The artist, courtesy Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. Photo: Eoghan McTigue.]

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Keep reading Show less

Scientists discover how to trap mysterious dark matter

A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.

Surprising Science
  • Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
  • Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
  • The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

  • As a stand-up comedian, Pete Holmes knows how words can manipulate audiences — for good and bad.
  • Words aren't just words. They stich together our social fabric, helping establish and maintain relationships.
  • Holmes has a clever linguistic exercise meant to bring you closer to the people around you.