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Susan Philipsz – Underground Valletta


As the visitor is going down the stairs it seems as if a Bell is echoing from a distance followed by an intensive and touching interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s song “Who By Fire” by scottish artist Susan Philipsz. 

The solemn music-piece is based on a melody for the Hebrew prayer “Unetanneh Tokef,” chanted on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the Book of Life is opened to reveal who will die and by what means.

Philipsz sound installation is resounding in a mysterious underground world full of dark corners and arches scared by moss. From the ceiling of the cistern tree roots are sprawling down from the upperworld to the underworld. They seem to weave an organic fabrique draped around the two major underground spaces of the water-reservoir.


Valletta 2018 has opened the underground cistern opposite the Law Courts as part of its major exhibition, Dal-Baħar Madwarha (The Island is What the Sea Surrounds). It was one of five major water reservoirs built by the Knights of St. John.

The sound of a bell in the sound installation is seperating the different verses of the lyrics. It refers to a damaged naval bell at the National War Museum in Fort St. Elmo that has been salvaged. This battered bell remains a reminder of the impact and force of air raids. The cistern served as a bomb shelter during WW II.

Exploring the art work visitors discover beneath the City of Valletta a hidden, secret town of its own with many layers and traces of history. Shelters, storages, trade routes and the refer to the turbulent history of its use.

Curator Maren Richter underlined the importance of memorials during the opening end of march. Artist Susan Philipsz laid a candle at the makeshift memorial to assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia in front of the law courts.



The Title of Susan Philipsz’ Sound-installation, “Who By Fire”, as a reference to the Cohen Lyrics, opens up fine possibilities for interpretation.  In the 1974 released song Cohen conceives his own litany of “the ways you can leave this vale of tears,” which include downers, avalanche and “something blunt,” ending each verse with the agnostic query, “and who shall I say is calling?”

The exhibition can be visited until 1st of July.

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