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Sonic Worlds: Tarek Atoui's The Ground

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Sonic Worlds: Tarek Atoui's The Ground
Tarek Atoui's The Ground: From the Land to the Sea. Image courtesy of NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts, installation view.

In a nutshell, sound artist and composer Tarek Atoui’s first solo exhibition in Southeast Asia can be summed up in this one sentence: this is what can happen when we let sound take over. 

By a stroke of ironic curatorial intention (or un-intention?), one is first struck by the fluorescent white lights of the gallery space at NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts, in which Atoui’s show, The Ground: From the Land to the Sea, is on view – although, 'on view' might be a wildly inaccurate choice of words in light of Atoui’s mastery of the sonic medium. The gallery space is very much a white cube, an archetypal art space which has conventionally lent itself to the sort of art that hangs on walls, so what is arresting about Atoui’s work and the curatorial vision behind the exhibition is its ability to transform the white cube into a total sonic environment. 

I enter the gallery space at 3:49pm on a Wednesday afternoon. The wall text to the right of the gallery’s double doors inform me that I am entering into Session 3 of Atoui’s I/E composition, a sixty-minute long composition broken into three arcs that loops exactly on the hour – session 3 happens to last 22 minutes and 43 seconds, and consists of recordings of ‘dawn chorus and the awakening of Elefsina recorded from Demeter’s temple, night fall in the mangrove and natural reserve of Abu Dhabi, refineries and wildlife sounds on Pulau Hantu Besar, and military activity and training of fighter jets on Pulau Sudong.’ At 3:49pm, I am approximately halfway through the third session. 

Tarek Atoui and Wu Lou's The Spin, 2015; The Spin Library, 2017-18; The Turntable, 2018. Image courtesy of NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts, installation view. 

Merely listening to the composition in its totality, it is impossible to decipher which sounds are which – who can say if the white noise from the twelve speakers situated neatly along the gallery’s white walls are that of a dawn chorus in Elfsina, or of night fall in a mangrove in Abu Dhabi? This is not yet to mention the rhythmic ticking from a ceramic disc spinning on a turntable which uses a repurposed twig for a needle (The Spin, 2015The Turntable/Study #1, 2018), or the recording of the scratch of rock against the strings of an unidentified string instrument emanating from a speaker connected to a tiny, ancient television box sitting in the middle of the room (The Trichord). The gallery space is punctuated in a minimalist, studious fashion with all manner of such self-made instruments crafted by Atoui himself; a sound library of instruments that seems at once to be doubly an ethnographic and artistic display. The instruments and materials in the space all trace their origins to sites of Atoui’s ongoing ecological and artistic research to do with the aural – all the instruments developed for The Ground were results of half a decade of observing nature in the Pearl River Delta in China. For instance, The Turntable rotates at an irregular speed which synchronises with exterior sound source, thereby disrupting the repetition of a record’s sonic linearity; The Spin Library, developed in collaboration with Wu Lou, is a multifaceted entity that exists triply as an instrument, a sound library and a record collection, made up of ceramic discs whose sonic content lies not within but on their surface – when played on a turntable or manually their aural output comes from the tactile connection with each record’s unique textures. Yet despite their integral function to the creation of sound, the instruments’ materiality seems to fade into the background as sound takes over one’s senses. Stepping into the exhibition space is like stepping into a sonic enclosure. And perhaps this is the point of Atoui’s work – the creation of a total sonic environment that is impossible to be deconstructed, or broken down in layers. 

Tarek Atoui's The Ground: From the Land to the Sea. Image courtesy of NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts, installation view. 

This point is driven home with sound artist Cheryl Loh’s live interventions in Atoui’s existing composition. Loh’s disruption of Atoui’s composition is no mistake – it is in fact part of the curatorial programming of the exhibition. Throughout the exhibition’s run at NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts, artistic collaborators and guest musicians are invited to intervene in Atoui’s sonic space. Loh is sitting on the floor of the gallery fiddling with her laptop and one of Atoui's hand-crafted sequencers, responding to Atoui’s work in what one assumes is a freestyle and improvisational manner. There is an objective awareness and knowledge that Loh is creating something totally different and her own in an existing sonic space, but simultaneously it is impossible to tell what exactly is Loh’s, and what comes from Atoui’s I/E composition. Perhaps this is why Atoui works with the aural: sound refuses to be neatly deconstructed; it refuses the impulse of individual artistic ownership and authorship. The sonic medium aligns perfectly with the collaborative ethos of Atoui’s artistic practice – with sound it is impossible to attribute clearly what belongs to whom; an aural environment is at once totalising and vulnerable to intervention, interruption and (re)invention from other actors. Further, it is not merely Loh’s in-the-moment noise creation that ruptures Atoui’s sonic composition – it is also the squeak of her shoes as she crosses the space of the gallery to work with different speakers, the scratch of my pen across paper as I take notes, the occasional cough from the gallery sitter in the far corner of the room. 

The induction of the audience into Atoui’s aural world is a gradual one that quickly crescendos into an immersion into a different dimension – one’s awareness of tangible space quickly transforms into an awareness of intangible sonic space, not unlike a journey from a material dimension to an aural dimension that one did not know one had embarked on. Yet it is not to say that this aural dimension is any less tactile or sensorial than our immediate material environment. The average art-going audience is used to having to engage with most visual art on a mental level; there is an agency involved on the gallery-goer’s part to transport themselves into the conceptual realm of the artist or the art they are consuming. With Atoui’s work, however, the sense is that one involuntary finds one’s self sucked into his sonic dimension – a total submergence into an aural world that we are prone to dismissing in everyday life. The Ground: From the Land to the Sea is what happens when we allow sound and nature to take over our senses. 

 

The Ground: From the Land to the Sea is on view until 24th June at NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts, which is located at Block 43 Malan Road. Please refer to the NTU Centre for Contemporary Arts website for more details regarding public programmes and guest musicians' appearances. 

 


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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