Susan Philipsz becomes first sound artist to win Turner Prize

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Student protests greeted the announcement of Susan Philipsz as this year's winner of the Turner Prize, the biggest annual award for an artist in Britain.

Philipsz is the first artist in the 26 years of the prize to win for a work of sound art.

As the Guardian noted, she is the "first person in the history of the award to have created nothing you can see or touch."

The students, though, weren't protesting the absence of visuals in Philipsz's art; they were using media coverage of the announcement as an opportunity to protest prospective diminished budgets for the arts at universities.

The work for which Philipsz was commended, an installation titled "Lowlands," involved recordings of her singing an oft-covered Scottish song, "Lowlands Away," being played by the river Clyde in her native Glasgow. Her plain, natural, casual (i.e., largely untrained) voice seemed to emanate from nowhere and everywhere. It echoed against a massive bridge structure, and mixed in with the sounds of the environment.


[ Photo: Susan Philipsz, LOWLANDS 2008 / 2010 Clyde Walkway, Glasgow. Courtesy of the artist, the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, and photographer Eoghan McTigue. ]

The news about Philipsz's triumph is great for several reasons. The 45-year-old Scottish artist's win marks a major milestone for sound art, which is to say for so-called fine art in which audio is the core if not sole constituent element. It wasn't just the first time a sound-art work won — it was the first time one was even nominated for the Turner.

And it's also a maturing point for sound art, which often involves electronically produced noises, but as evidenced by Philipsz's headline-making accomplishment, can also comprise popular song. (In addition, it's worth noting that exactly two decades ago in 1990, there was no Turner prize at all due to the absence of a sponsor, so it's great the thing is still around.)

Philipsz is the fourth woman to win the Turner. Past winners include poop-friendly duo Gilbert & George, skull-bedazzler Damien Hurst, and video remixer Douglas Gordon (whose slowing down of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho provided inspiration for Don DeLillo's recent novella, Point Omega).

More on the prize at See also this Guardian story (one of many).