Tucked away in a corner of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s fourth floor is We Shall Be All (2011), a commissioned installation by the Turner Prize-winning artist Susan Philipsz. While Philipsz is widely billed as a “sound artist” the medium listed as you enter the gallery is 35mm film transferred to DVD. This multi-step process seems a bit excessive because for the majority of the piece’s eight-minute duration the projector projects nothing. What we see rather than the blackness of the sustained absence of a picture is a ghostly purple rectangle.
The exhibition space is a narrow unlit tunnel, roughly proportionate to a shoebox. There isn’t much to see, but once your eyes adjust you can detect an array of speakers throughout the gallery. One is placed in the right hand corner near the wall on which is projected nothing. Along the opposite wall is another speaker. And finally near the rear of the gallery is a third. It is kind of a casual arrangement—they aren’t secretly placed in the darkness or mounted in a special way. They just sit on the floor. The result is quite effective, though. The space is filled and takes on sculptural characteristics. The speakers become characters in the work; they are individuals broadcasting a presence.
We Shall Be All begins with the artist singing a folk song a cappella from a single speaker. It’s a love song about a bonnie whose voice is “low and sweet.”
After the song there is silence and for the brief moment something is actually projected. It is white text on the black background, one line at a time:
“I am not dead—I am not dead
I live life intense, divine
Yours be the days forever fled
But all the morrows shall be mine”
We are returned to darkness and sound resumes. Funerary bagpipes begin, the ambience of a busy city street joins in and shouting voices that sound like dictatorial speeches wander from speaker to speaker. Their words are indecipherable. The audio swells to a rich din and then ebbs to the atmospheric tones of ambient electronic music followed by silence. The artist beings to sing again, this time from two speakers a half step apart. There’s slight discrepancy in timing, which makes the artist’s voice sound like a choir of women singing a dour but witty tune.
At one moment the echoing artist’s voice asks heavy questions: “Who by high ordeal? / Who by common trial?” But then it turns to a pun: “And who shall I say is calling?” The mood, the rhythm and timbre of the singer recalls Sinead O’Connor’s landmark cover of Bob Marley’s “War” on Saturday Night Live after which she tore in half a photograph of Pope John Paul II.
The whole time I was trying to think about how this is political. Prior to viewing, or hearing as the case may be, the installation, I had read it utilized texts relating to the speeches and slogans of the Industrial Workers of the World and women’s labor groups in Chicago. You could perhaps glean a political call to action in the text, a message of invincibility and ultimate victory over an unnamed oppressor. Some of the lines in the song “Who by Fire” are a sort of call to arms, a prayer for a leader to appear. And the song about the beloved lass could be a eulogy for the spirit of the woman worker. But that all seems like a pretty big stretch. I only thought that because the idea of a political message had been planted in my brain by the press release. Based on what I heard and experienced, I thought more of poetry, folk music and romance.
Harper's Weekly engraving of the Haymarket Affair. 1886. Public domain.
It’s probably my fault for not reading the introductory text on the wall first; it explains the whole thing. The primary subject of the piece is the Haymarket Affair, which occurred in 1886 in Chicago. It is briefly described as an event “in which numerous civilians and police officers were killed after violence erupted at a rally for striking workers.” There's no indication of why it is currently relevant. The love song is the Scottish ballad “Annie Laurie” and Arthur Parsons reportedly sang it as he awaited execution for his alleged role in the riot. The projected text is from a poem by Voltairine de Cleyre read at memorials commemorating workers who died in the riot. The other song is Who by Fire (1974) by Leonard Cohen. And the sound collage is a segment of East Hastings (1998) by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
We Shall Be All is a powerful installation formally; with a very few elements it creates an immersive, tangible environment made from sound and darkness. The empty projection underscores this. There is nothing to see, there is only anticipation. And when something to see does arrive it is hardly spectacular, just a few lines of text.
What is unproductive is the content inserted into this structure. The artist has taken a fashionable thing (labor rights) and pared it with a cool thing (Post-rock and Leonard Cohen). I believe Philipsz is invested in these things, but even with the explanatory text they come off as incidental and vague. The result is a collection of elements gesturing toward substantive content but never actually achieving it.
--Erik Wenzel, ArtSlant Senior Writer