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Susan Phillips leaves echoes of Theresienstadt in Vienna

Susan Phillips leaves echoes of Theresienstadt in Vienna

History, Present

Susanne Philippsz is an expert in visualizing the history of places when there seems to be nothing left to remember what happened. She does this not through monuments or other visual signs, but primarily through sounds, as has already happened several times in Vienna: in 2015, the trumpet sounds in the Temple of Theseus in the Volksgarten recalled the wartime history of the park as a fortress, and in 2018, the installation “Sounds” in Heldenplatz recalled those sounds in memory that resounded loudly after Hitler’s invasion in 1938 – or I was silent.

But Theresienstadt is the place that has kept Phillips busy time and again. It is now the focus of an impressive exhibition at the Franz Josef K3 art space, which places that preoccupation within the broader development of the Scottish woman born in 1965 (until 15 September 2024).

In the work “Study for Strings,” installed at the Documenta in Kassel in 2012, Phillips dissected the “Study for String Orchestra” that the composer Pavel Haas, who was interned in Theresienstadt, had to perform in a propaganda film about the Nazi ghetto—shortly before, just as the film’s “director,” Kurt Gerron, was deported to Auschwitz and murdered. In the Vienna exhibition, the installation appears as 12 loudspeakers, each reproducing a musical note from the cello and violin parts of the piece.

“We made three trips to Theresienstadt to find out exactly where this piece was performed,” says Philipsz. The artist and her team found a gymnasium belonging to the Sokol Terezin association, which is still used for sports activities. The cinematic image of the eponymous site is now the heart of the Vienna show: two cameras pan across the building from two different starting points, and the soundtrack reproduces the sounds of the “Study for Strings” arrangements that Philipsz installed directly on site for the recordings.

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“Sounds once generated never fade away” – this idea, put forward by the Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, underlies many of Phillips’s works. Thus the perception of the sounds of Theresienstadt in Vienna is once again a starting point for listening to the echoes of the exhibition space itself. In the basement where the film is shown, there was a small theatre, the “Jewish Cultural Theatre” from 1935 to 1938; on the ground floor, the Schwadron brothers – Jewish businessmen who emigrated from Galicia – keep the showroom of their tile company, which in turn shapes the appearance of many Art Nouveau houses in Vienna to this day.

A sound installation in the sidewalk room, called “Sound Mirrors,” now sends fragments of Philipsz’s voice back and forth between two parabolic mirrors like an echo sounder in the gallery’s entrance hall; a film the artist shot in Berlin in 2004 highlights the (unspectacular) spot where the activist Karl Liebknecht was murdered. What was it? What is it? What will it be? Philipsz manages to briefly raise the sensitivity to these questions to a level that surprises the perceiver. For once, to say that the experience resonates for a long time is not a cliché.