Philipsz’s haunting sound and video artworks serve as a poignant witness to the lives and artistry of victims of the Holocaust.
At the heart of Susan Philipsz’s Separated Strings at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery is “Study for Strings Sokol Terezín” (2023), a haunting yet poetic dual-screen film based on the story of Pavel Haas, a Jewish Czech composer. In 1941, Haas was deported to Theresienstadt (Terezín), Czech Republic, a concentration camp and Nazi propaganda project used to deflect genocide claims from the Allied nations during World War II. While at Terezín, Haas wrote several scores, including “Study for String Orchestra,” which he and fellow imprisoned Jews performed under duress for a 1944 Nazi propaganda film that conveyed life in the camp as idyllic. The same year, Haas and thousands of other prisoners from these productions were transported to Auschwitz and killed.
Philipsz’s film takes place in Theresienstadt, in the building where many of the propagandistic performances took place, including that of Haas. Echoing through the empty building are the sounds of the cello and viola performing his composition. Philipsz originally created the audio portion of “Study for Strings” in 2012, for Documenta 13. Adding the visual element to the audio underscores the composer’s absence. Two cameras explore the building, one following the sounds of the cello and the other the viola. They eventually travel into the underbelly of the building, descending the stairs and finally meeting in a dark basement. While some of Terezín fell into ruins, in particular areas where people lived in harrowing conditions, others were integrated into society and are still used today, including this building (currently used as a gym). The cameras explore the space, panning over concrete surfaces and dirt floors as if seeking to discover something. Yet nothing is discovered apart from absence and loss. The cameras pause on an oblong, discolored patch on the floor, an abstract reminder of the horrors that took place.
Separated Strings continues at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 25.The exhibition was organized by the gallery.
(c) 2023, Hyperallergic