Susan Philipsz and other artists respond to labor history
The Museum of Contemporary Art and Hull-House Museum host Susan Philipsz’s sound installations.
Upon entering Susan Philipsz’s We Shall Be All at the Museum of Contemporary Art, you find yourself in a pitch-black gallery. All it contains is a projection of a blank screen; the only sound the Turner Prize–winning Scottish artist singing “Annie Laurie” a cappella.
The books placed on a table outside Philipsz’s installation reveal the inspiration for her beautifully eerie performance of the 19th-century Scottish song. (We Shall Be All also incorporates an excerpt from Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s “East Hastings,” Philipsz’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire” and strategic silences.) The texts include Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Melvyn Dubofsky’s We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World and James Green’s Death in the Haymarket. Chicago labor activist Albert Parsons sang “Annie Laurie” the night before he was executed, unfairly charged with conspiracy and murder in connection with the May 4, 1886, Haymarket affair.
Philipsz—whose 1999 performance of “The Internationale,” the Communist and socialist anthem, can be heard in the MCA’s atrium—addresses the American labor movement at a moment when it’s colliding with art and visual culture in surprising ways. In March 2011, the National Museum of American History dispatched a curator, Barbara Clark Smith, to Madison, Wisconsin, to collect posters carried by those protesting the state government’s attacks on unions’ collective bargaining rights. The same month, Maine Gov. Paul LePage ordered a 36-foot-long mural removed from his state’s Department of Labor office, claiming that artist Judy Taylor’s depictions of local labor history, including two strikes, make her 2008 piece “one-sided.”
One wonders what LePage would make of Philipsz’s 2002 sound installation Pledge, which UIC’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is presenting in its Residents’ Dining Hall. The artist dedicates this piece to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, leaders of Germany’s left-wing Spartacus League, who were murdered by paramilitary thugs in 1919 because of their antiwar and Marxist views.
Hull-House Museum’s cozy setting complements Philipsz’s piece, which begins with the sounds of chatter, glasses clinking, chairs moving and a piano playing light music—references to the Berlin hotel where Luxemburg was tortured and killed. Other sounds evoke the train station that was one of the last places Luxemburg and Liebknecht were seen alive, the lake where Liebknecht was shot and the canal where Luxemburg’s corpse was thrown. Minor chords shift the mood from warm to melancholy. When they stop, we hear Philipsz singing a cappella again: “Stand up and fight and fight / We have a score to settle / Stand up and fight and fight / We have a war to wage.” She ends with the words, “This will be our pledge.” The artist asks listeners to understand the plight of two revolutionaries; she also wants us “to access the experience of getting lost, being in a strange land, confronting language barriers and seeing through the eyes of a foreigner,” according to the wall text—challenges that Philipsz, who lives in Berlin, presumably has experienced firsthand.
Philipsz isn’t the only artist asking Chicagoans to put themselves in historical workers’ shoes. The photographs in “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” are on view at Roosevelt University’s Gage Gallery through June 30. Mary Brogger’s 2004 sculpture The Haymarket Memorial marks the West Loop spot where a bomb ended the 1886 labor rally, killing eight policemen, at least four civilians and—eventually—Parsons and four other activists who were executed or committed suicide. On April 30, Pocket Guide to Hell’s Haymarket Reenactment attracted participants such as artist and musician Jon Langford. Dressed in period costume, he sang “Annie Laurie.”