PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24.3 (2002) 35-43
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The Sound of Reformed Space
Liz Phillips's Responsive Installations
A brass ring spins on its edge madly accelerating as it descends to a final stop. A table of water shimmers vibrating as the air moves above it. Fish swim within a large tank following invisible currents. Wind rushes over an empty lot filling it with eerie sounds. A mound of spaghetti invites the hungry to lift forkfuls and eat. Each of these scenes provides the dynamic ground for some of the many sound installations Liz Phillips has constructed during the past thirty years. Each furnishes the sound that will be synthesized to track the motion and position of those who enter into the fields that surround them. Animate and inanimate objects fill spaces everywhere on our planet; they are a visible audible presence open to tactile response. Phillips's work adds a further dimension, bringing the negative space surrounding these sites into dynamic interconnection with the solid presence of ring, table, fishtank, and so forth. As space becomes an audible environment mapping presence and absence, motion and stillness, emptiness and fullness, her work calls into question the basic philosophical divisions between subject and object, between space and time. Phillips's audience, if that's the right word, cannot simply look at or listen to her work; people's tangible engagement with it—their bodies, perhaps utterly unaware—makes the work.
As a child, Phillips and a neighborhood friend used to spend hours hiding in the wooded empty lots between their houses remaking the landscape. The two moved rocks, plants, leaves, and even small trees around inside the woods to make secret gardens. Was this art or science, a built or natural environment? Part of the desire to refashion the woods came from a sense that the wonderful messiness of a leaf-strewn pine, oak, and maple forest should have even its pristine decay interrupted by human activity in the off-chance that another passerby might stop, be as intrigued by the space as the little girls were, and take note of its organized chaos. Part of the effort entailed rigorous scientific investigation to discover whether moving plants from one site to another would interfere with their growth. Empty lots—the dead zone between built environments, in this case suburban houses—could provide abundant horticulture, could be a space for displaying and reworking nature itself. Art was haphazard, made to be stumbled upon, perhaps overlooked, but nevertheless there, definitely there. [End Page 35]
A few years later, these two dug up a bunch of wild Indian pipes from the woods near Phillips's house, stuck them in a pot, and sent them to the New York Horticulture Show as an act of defiance against the very idea of flower shows. Given access to the show by the custodian at their elementary school whose wife cultivated roses and driven into the city by Phillips's mother, they won honorable mention, the judges either not getting the joke, or getting it all too well. Prizing a wild flower over a cultivated hybrid meant responding to the space surrounding the delicate white shoots—the thick bed of leaves, the piney, acorn-like smell of late spring, the dappled light falling through the trees, the emptiness and privacy. It isn't easy to find Indian pipes, even then they were rare; it requires attention to subtle differences—the milky white heads pushing up just beneath the brown mulch of the forest floor. They don't survive well in the light and need to be kept moist; but somehow the plants survived the hotel lobby air and eventually returned to their original home. Phillips has been playing jokes on nature and culture, on art and its reception, ever since this childhood prank, a lesson in the absurdity of producing a more beautiful flower than these simple pale stems. Sending the Indian pipes across the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan was a kind of performance, a...