Witness and Event: Julia Phillips Interviewed by Brandon Sward

Sculpture and installation that investigate subjective perspectives.

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Installation view of Julia Phillips: Fake Truth at the Kunstverein Braunschweig. Photo by Stefan Stark.

Julia Phillips is a German American artist who was born and studied in Hamburg before moving to New York to complete an MFA at Columbia University and participate in the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. Her sculptures imply new uses for the body that hover uneasily between desire and violence. Last year, she had her inaugural solo show in the United States, Failure Detection, at MoMA PS1 in New York City. This year, Phillips returns to Germany for her first institutional solo exhibition in her home country at Kunstverein Braunschweig. While there are several continuities between her new project, Fake Truth, and Phillips’s earlier work, such as her use of metal and ceramic to suggest fragmented humanoid forms, she also charts new territory with sound and socially responsive sculpture.

—Brandon Sward


Brandon Sward Witness I–III (2019) enlists the viewer as an active participant in the work. What’s at stake for you in implicating audiences in this way?

Julia Phillips The installation Witness I–III is equipped with contact and cardioid microphones that pick up sounds that viewers unavoidably produce. The floor of the space is covered in gravel, and every footstep produces a sound that, in addition to oral sounds, is “witnessed” by three ceramic sculptures suspended from the ceiling. The sculptures play back the sounds through speakers embedded in them.

In this project, viewers’ actions are amplified, interpreted, and reproduced. The sculptures therefore become active agents. The playback sounds confront viewers with an interpretation of their own actions that clearly deviates from reality or truth. Viewers stand in relation to three sculptures—a group, a formation—and hear their actions and sounds reflected back to them in various ways and with different sound effects. The sound is played back at an intimate volume, encouraging physical proximity to the work and only allowing them to hear one interpretation at a time.

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Julia Phillips, Witness IIII, 2019, glazed ceramics, cables, cardioid microphones, contact microphones, speakers, subwoofer, gravel (misc. technology), dimensions variable. Photo by Stefan Stark.

BS Could you speak a bit about the title of the exhibition, Fake Truth?

JP The title Fake Truth speaks to subjective perception, and truth as an unreliable value. Truth, in the context of language and emotion, does not seem to exist as an objective fact, but instead is dependent on subjective perspectives of an event. Similar to previous works, I am examining a specific relationship, in this case the relationship between witness and event, both on an intimate, interpersonal level and on a social, structural level.

The title plays with the term “fake news,” which has become part of our information reality. I was educated to understand “real news” as an accurate, objective narration of past events, with a moderate amount of subjective interpretation. The concept “fake news,” as paradoxical as it is, helps me think about the line between subjectivity and inaccuracy. How do we choose a narrator of the past, a witness? And how consciously do we evaluate the mental health of a witnessing subject who is responsible for reconstructing the past?

BS The word “witness” has strongly judicial connotations. Is there a relationship between Witness I–III and law?

JP Definitely. We can look at criminology, for instance. In order to get an accurate description of a past event in court, at least two witnesses are brought in. Judges listen to one piece of evidence at a time, attempting to use fragmented information to construct a reliable narrative. And the constructed truth is based on and overlaps with the assessment of a judge, which again is subjective.

BS The fragmented way you portray the human body has always had an unnerving effect on me. What meaning does this fragmentation have for you?

JP Ambivalence. By showing the body in fragments I am hinting at a potential presence. What exactly the suggested body is doing with the parts that aren’t visible is up to the viewer to imagine. I like creating scenes and narratives that set a tone and give hints, but I am less interested in making a completed statement—at least not visually. Letting viewers fill in the blanks hopefully allows them to adjust the work to fit their own realities and imaginations.

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Installation view of Julia Phillips: Fake Truth at the Kunstverein Braunschweig. Photo by Stefan Stark.

BS What form does this fragmentation take in Fake Truth?

JP The three sculptures resemble human upper bodies. The hanging pieces are casts of partial heads, ears, necks, and shoulders. Suspended underneath the shoulders, within the imaginary torso, are lungs, representations of breathing entities.

Vocal microphones are embedded in the sculptures, facing the viewer at approximate mouth-height to pick up oral sounds. The back of the head casts each have a hole that holds the microphone, which I consider to be a surreal moment in the work. While a microphone stuck through a skull can be interpreted as a violent act, it also turns the three entities into uncanny robot-like presences.

BS Could you speak a bit about the materiality of these works?

JP The outside, glaze surfaces of the casts are more realistic than in my previous work. They carry identity markers like scars, hair texture, and complexion. Bodies with histories. Still, the aspect of anonymity remains, since the casts don’t portray any facial features.

This work has motivated me to use glaze more experimentally. I have introduced bright flesh colors to my palette and created glaze layers that resemble the surface of internal organs with blue veins and bloodred edges.

The lungs are imagined, hand-built shapes that vary texturally from the casts. The casts show recurring elements from previous works, combining smooth surfaces with ruptured holes. Their ears are all somewhat torn and open. I wanted to portray the ears as orifices that lead inside the body where hearing, interpreting, and playback take place.

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Julia Phillips, Witness IIII, 2019, glazed ceramics, cables, cardioid microphones, contact microphones, speakers, subwoofer, gravel (misc. technology), dimensions variable. Photo by Stefan Stark.

BS Have you worked with sound before? What role does the aural play in Fake Truth?

JP I have not; this is the first time. I got the idea for this project when I was at a residency in Salvador, Brazil. One of the fellow residents was Pauchi Sasaki, an amazing artist who uses sound very expressively and physically. When she introduced me to her work, I understood the potential of digital sound as an animating, almost visceral element, like the sound of breath. Breathing does not produce much sound, but when our ears pick it up it symbolizes that another human is present, and that’s where a story can begin.

Julia Phillips: Fake Truth is on view at the Kunstverein Braunschweig in Braunschweig, Germany, until November 17.

Brandon Sward is an artist and writer who splits time between Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.

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