A Song Becomes a Work of Art in the Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden

Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden
Hirshhorn’s Sculpture Garden Lauren Hogan

"I asked my love to take a walk, to take a walk, to take a walk, Down beside where the waters flow, Down by the banks of the Ohio..."

It’s pretty rare for someone to walk through the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden and hear music playing. It’s even rarer for the music to be an actual exhibit at the Garden. But now when visitors go to ponder the Rodin’s or attempt to solve a Kooning, they'll leave contemplating a new beat.

Recently, the Sculpture Garden acquired "Sunset Song," the first sound artwork located in the sculpture garden. The installment, by Susan Philipsz, is made up of two speakers with two audio tracks, one which features a male character and the other, a female character. Philipsz sings both tracks a capella.

So where exactly is the art in a piece like this?

"drawn to the notion of thinking we could enhance our sculpture garden in a more contemporary direction and engage visitors in a different sense, beyond sight, beyond vision," answers Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Kristen Hileman. "It was interesting to reintroduce the idea of a narrative in contemporary art and see how by telling a story Susan Philipz elicits an emotional response in viewers."

Thinking the Hirshhorn is losing it's artsy-edge and going romantically soft? Just wait for the lines, "I murdered the girl I love you see, Because she would not marry me ..." and set any doubts aside.

The song is an American murder ballad called "Banks of the Ohio." It has roots in Scotland, where ballads termed ‘Sunset Song’ are songs in which someone is killed. "Banks of the Ohio" is about a male figure inviting his female lover to go for a walk on the banks of the Ohio River. When the female refuses to marry him, he kills her. (There are other variations in which the two characters switch roles).

"Sunset Song" is also sensitive to its surroundings. Set on an electric sensor, as the sun sets or fades, the volume of the piece decreases. Just as in keeping with the idea of death, when it is finally dark, there is absolute silence.

"When visitors encounter the sound piece in the context of sculpture, I hope they are prompted to ask questions about what art can be and what sculpture can be," says Hileman "And maybe even think about how sound artwork sculpts our environment."

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