Hanna Tuulikki, SING SIGN: a close duet

We are thrilled to welcome Hanna Tuulikki’s film and sound installation SING SIGN: a close duet into the national collection. This poetic and multi-layered work has been presented to the nation by Outset, and we thank them for the immensely generous gift. 

Offering a nuanced dialogue shaped by voice, body and place, SING SIGN: a close duet is exemplary of Tuulikki’s rigorous research-led practice that stretches fluidly across disciplines and artforms, engaging in questions of both historical and contemporary relevance. In her projects, she works with the voice and gesture to unearth what she describes as the ‘essential relationship with the lore of places’: making visible – and audible – the often hidden or forgotten knowledge, histories and traditions carried within specific environments and ecologies. 

SING SIGN: a close duet is a two-channel film installation rooted in the city of Edinburgh. It was commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival for their 2015 programme, ‘The Improbable City’, and was made in direct response to the narrow closes (a Scots term for ancient alleyways) that run from the Royal Mile, the spine that forms the main thoroughfare of the city’s Old Town. 

Hanna Tuulikki, SING SIGN: a close duet, 2015. National Galleries of Scotland. Gifted by Outset Scotland 2019 © Hanna Tuulikki

Exploring and expanding on the ways in which the body can communicate ‘beyond and before’ words is a central preoccupation of Tuulikki’s diverse practice. SING SIGN: a close duet presents two performers on opposing screens (Hanna Tuulikki and Daniel Padden, who regularly collaborates with the artist) dressed in enigmatic white costumes reminiscent of another place and time. The performers engage in a wordless duet using vocal sounds and gestures drawn from British Sign Language. The city becomes the stage for this otherworldly encounter between the bodies and the surrounding environment. By stretching their voices to share a pitch range, the performers’ dialogue also undermines normative gendered voices. In other projects, Tuulikki has stretched the communicative possibilities of the body in response to the more-than-human, her voice shapeshifting from the swaying of waves to the song of seabirds, her body tracing the movements of deer. 

During her research for SING SIGN: a close duet, Tuulikki was struck by the names and the historic significance of the closes around the Royal Mile, discovering, for example, that an inn in one close was the birthplace of Scottish Baroque music, where folk and classical forms were combined by musicians. The work itself is divided into four movements, named after the traditional Baroque Dance Suite, while the synchronized signing translates names of several historic closes, chosen by the artist due to the similarity in patterns used to make these signs. The silent repetitive gestures transform a language into motion, an elaborate dance that evokes a Baroque ballroom scene. The structure for Tuulikki’s musical composition derived from a 1765 map featuring the Royal Mile, turning the city itself into a musical score that runs within the singing, the signing and the performers themselves. Using its design as a rubric, Tuulikki settled on the hocket form, a musical device used since the 13th century in which a single melody is shared by two voices, each taking a turn while the other rests, reflecting the rhythms and irregularities of the historical city. 

With its strong connection to the history and geography of the city of Edinburgh, SING SIGN: a close duet has a special place within the national collection. While it resonates powerfully with the stories of our past, it also feels more relevant now than ever. After a year that has forced us to renegotiate our relationships with the people and places that surround us, Tuulikki’s work of art interrogates what it really means for us to communicate.

By Emma Gillespie, Assistant Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, 19 April 2021