Two New Pulitzer Exhibits Meditate on Topics Close to Home For St. Louis
It’s easy to regard the physical space of a museum as a blank slate—a white shoebox whose job is to be as innocuous as possible so as not to interfere with interpretations of the artworks within. But in the case of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, both fall 2019 exhibitions—Susan Philipsz’s “Seven Tears” and Zarina Hashmi’s “Zarina: Atlas of Her World”—are overflowing with reminders of the environment in which visitors experience them.
This curious self-consciousness manifests in different ways for each exhibit. For Berlin-based sound artist Susan Philipsz, the works interact directly with the acoustics of each viewing room, in those cases where they are not outright site-specific. (The exhibition features one piece that was commissioned by the Pulitzer expressly for the space’s water court, “Too Much I Once Lamented,” in which Philipsz’s voice sings each part of a 1622 madrigal split into five channels).
And for Indian-born American artist Zarina Hashmi, known simply throughout the exhibit (and art world) as Zarina, the architectural influences and forms recurrent in her work invite viewers to consider one’s own relationship with the building in which they stand.
While Zarina and Philipsz’s works are not directly in conversation with one another, the unique layout of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s building (designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando) forces them to interact, juxtaposing them physically in the various galleries and inviting visitors to ping-pong from one artist to the other as they progress through the space.
The effect of bouncing from Zarina to Philipsz and back again mimics another kinetic motion (one that permeates both exhibitions as well)—the boomerang effect of zooming in and zooming out on a map. Zarina’s five-plus decades of printmaking take her from a bird’s-eye view of Delhi in her three-part portfolio “Delhi“ to an intimate, pictographical woodcut print symbolizing the door of a home in her 36-part work “Home is a Foreign Place” to the fraught 1947 Partition that carved British India into India and Pakistan in her woodcut “Dividing Line.”
“Dividing Line” by Zarina.
Philipsz’s work, too, fluctuates from the intimate to the public and back again—for example, approaching the museum, one is first greeted by Philipsz’s untrained voice projecting a rendition of Radiohead’s “Pyramid Song,” with its lyrics about rivers, out into this river-bounded city. The effect is something like overhearing a private moment from a passer-by, but the application of projecting the voice through loudspeakers beyond the grounds of the museum positions the work as decidedly public.
With much of Philipsz’s “Seven Tears” revolving around water (both the personal and the political, from composer John Dowland’s taxonomy of tears from which the exhibit takes its name, to the rivers invoked by Radiohead), it’s not simply the architecture of the building but the fact of its situation in St. Louis, nestled between the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, that complements the work. The dual nature of rivers—as a fact of the landscape, but also a natural boundary that’s so often leveraged as a political and geographical border as well—is innately understandable to most St. Louisans. (One need look no further than East St. Louis, separated by both a river and a state line, for an example.)
This tension feels like a subtle undercurrent for both exhibits. One of Zarina’s aerial maps of Delhi looks to be little more than the thin line of a river—but it recalls the aforementioned line of the 1947 Partition border she created through painstaking woodblock carving, too. Zarina’s displacement across that line, and later throughout the world as she relocated frequently with her diplomat husband, is as central to her work as her interest in architecture and the more physical attributes of a home.
“Delhi” triptych by Zarina.
Philipsz, for her part, nods at notions of displacement in her work “White Flood,” a multi-channel multimedia piece whose fragmented violin strains are taken from a composition by German composer Hans Eisler—who himself was exiled from Germany under the Nazis and later settled in the United States, only to be deported under the House Committee on Un-American Activities for composing anthems for the Communist party. (One of Dowland’s seven types of tears, “old tears renewed,” feels particularly apt here.)
“White Flood” by Susan Philipsz.
It’s interesting to find that both artists’ oeuvres seem so strangely at home together in this little museum in St. Louis, a city that has never actually signified “home” to either. Yet walking from gallery to gallery, one is reminded that these deeply human ideas—displacement; melancholy; longing; borders and boundaries, real and imagined; a return to water—aren’t unique to St. Louis; they’re not unique to anywhere. But there is an unusual pleasure in finding them here, so aptly situated at the Pulitzer, sharing our space for a short while.
Images courtesy of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation.