As originally planned, artist Susan Philipsz’ installation piece The Unquiet Grave would have invited visitors to wander through the Woodlands’ historic Hamilton Mansion as haunting sounds echoed through the building.
But even mansions located in graveyards are on lockdown at the moment, so that vision proved impossible. Instead, Philadelphia Contemporary has decided to bring a different version of the piece, which it commissioned, directly into people’s own homes — even those whose windows don’t gaze out onto weathered tombstones.
The new work, Muffled Drums, makes use of the same audio recordings that Philipsz intended for The Unquiet Grave. The artist is encouraging people to play the tracks on their smartphones, ideally placed around the house inside objects like pots and vases so the sound really resonates.
Muffled Drums goes live at 11 a.m. Monday at philadelphiacontemporary.org/muffled-drums, with audio tracks and a video to walk you through the DIY installation.
“This is more about exploring the acoustics of objects within your own home,” Philipsz explained from her home in Berlin. “It’s like giving a heartbeat to these objects. Of course, it’s not the mansion, with its creaky floorboards and torn wallpaper, but it’s a completely different experience of the sound in your own home. Unless you live in a big, creepy mansion.”
The Unquiet Grave was inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe, a lifelong obsession for Philipsz since the day she saw a film adaptation of Murders in the Rue Morgue at a likely too-young age.
Poe immediately came to mind when she visited the Hamilton Mansion at the invitation of Philadelphia Contemporary, the edgy “museum without walls” behind acclaimed site-specific installations like painter Jane Irish’s Antipodes at Fairmount Park’s Lemon Hill mansion.
Philipsz thought in particular of Poe’s 1843 short story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” It was only later that she learned that the story had been written and published while Poe was living in Philly.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Philipsz said. “Poe was inspired by domestic spaces, writing about his cellar, the space behind his walls, and the spaces around him. I feel like it’s so relevant for these times as we’re sitting at home in lockdown in our domestic spaces.”
“The Tell-Tale Heart” is told from the perspective of a murderer who believes that he hears the sounds of his victim’s heartbeat emanating from the floorboards where he’s been buried. Philipsz recorded several tracks of pounding drums as well as her own voice singing the mournful folk ballad “The Unquiet Grave (Child 78).”
These sounds work in an effective but very different way when carried into people’s own homes, she said. “It’s quite incredible how a small sound can become huge when you put it in the right object.”
Philadelphia Contemporary artistic director Nato Thompson said he still hopes to host Philipsz’ work at the Woodlands once the COVID crisis has passed. But offering it online seemed like an ideal first step in rethinking public art for a quarantined city.
“Susan’s piece is somewhat dreary and melancholy, which I like because it doesn’t fit with the tone of the time. Or maybe it fits exactly with the tone of the time, which artists are very good at,” he said.