Monday, October 15, 2012

Susan Philipsz, 'Study for Strings,' at Documenta 13

Excerpt of Susan Philipsz, Study for Strings, 2012, at Documenta 13, at the Kassel Hauptbahnhof, Kassel, Germany. Video: 16 Miles [more]

It's been a month since Documenta 13 ended its 100-day run in Kassel, Germany, and it feels, on the one hand, a little bit late to be writing about it. It's history. At the same time, it was so massive and so filled with various projects—its publications component alone included a series of 100 notebooks and three hulking catalogues—that I suspect many will be sifting through their memories and all of that material for a long time. I will be.

The Kassel Hauptbahnhof, the entrance for most people arriving to the show by rail, seems like a logical place to begin talking about the show. It's a sprawling station, and dates back to the very middle of the 19th century. During World War II, it was used to ship people to concentration camps. Much of it was damaged during the war, and reconstructed in a more modern style in the 1950s. (The Documenta 13 website has nice, short summaries of many of its exhibition sites.)

In the intervening years the Hauptbahnhof has since been replaced as a hub for international train travel by the Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe station, about a seven-minute tram ride away. Except for the main, central part of the Hauptbahnhof, which has a few restaurants and bars, most of it was deserted throughout the day. Relatively small, nimble trams glided on a few tracks facilitating local and regional travel while rows of tracks sat largely empty.

At the very far end of the waiting platform, a few minutes' walk away from the main station, Susan Philipsz presented one of the shows best moments, a very spare sound piece arrayed across 24 speakers. Here's her explanation from a pamphlet that Documenta printed about the work:
I have asked a viola and a cello player to play their parts of Pavel Haas’s Study for String Orchestra. However I have recorded them playing each note separately so that each of the notes comes from individual speakers, which I’ve installed out on the train tracks. The effect is that the composition is fragmented, incomplete and scattered over a wide area. Expanding and extending the recordings into the space has the effect of abstracting the individual notes from the composition as a whole. The beginning is reminiscent of industry or the sound of trains moving along the tracks. The middle section is more melancholic with individual notes calling across to each other and finally the pizzicato seems to animate the cables above the tracks.
Haas was held captive at the Theresienstadt camp, in what is now the Czech Republic, along with many of the people who were sent there through Kassel. An orchestra at the camp presented the Study in 1944 during a visit from the Red Cross. The composer was later killed, and the manuscript was lost, but the work has since been pieced together with the individual instruments parts. And here it was, splintered and reassembled again, on the tracks in Kassel.

Philipsz's roughly 13-minute version of the piece was played 20 times a day, on the hour and half hour from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. When I went in the middle of the afternoon in mid-August, only a few people were on the platform. (Though many of the main Documenta sites were packed with people, place off the main drag tended to be relatively quiet.)

It started right on time, and though it was occasionally partially drowned out by announcements from various speakers along the tracks or a train or tram slowly lumbering into the station, it was never quite obscured by other sounds. Everyone lingered silently, listening as a few fleeting fragments of the past slipped through into the present.


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