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Between the poetic and the political dimensions of sound: in conversation with Nevin Aladağ

Valentina Buzzi

Aug 16, 2022


“A recurring theme [in my work] is the desire to open up new perspectives

and break through habits of seeing as well as listening.

In addition, the communal is a central theme: the bringing together of materials, forms

and sounds that seemingly do not belong together, is to unite”.


Nevin Aladağ 



Resonator Percussion, 2022
Courtesy of Barakat Contemporary, Seoul 
Musician: Hannah Kim 
Photo: Jeon Byung Cheol 



Sound is a fundamental element of our daily life, which passively or actively intersects with our bodies, surroundings, and inner feelings. It is part of human culture, but it can also be seen as a language, a universal medium or tool for communication, from the personal to the political. Nevin Aladağ’s entire body of work resonates strongly with the possibilities of sound, which she explores through the widest scope possible: from composing scores using cannonballs as notes, to letting instruments become co-creators and independent performers of her own work. Yet, beyond the poetic aspect of Aladağ’s art - able to easily mesmerize the viewer - reside deeper social and political connotations, which she explores with the desire of opening up the way of seeing and listening, as well as challenging preconceptions. 


The artist’s recently closed solo show at Barakat Contemporary, Seoul, titled Motion Lines, explored the potentiality of music, shape and movements - introducing Nevin Aladağ’s work for the first time in Korea. The entire gallery was filled with unusual instruments, video installations, as well as bidimensional work. This multi-sensorial experience invited the audience to re-think and reflect on the very social, cultural, and political nature of sound, in an activating and experiential manner. 


Minjung Kim, curator of the exhibition, notes that “Motion Lines spur us to imagine unseen movements and sounds [...] Deconstructing the countless boundaries and names that human beings have created to date—from national borders, and racial, national, social, and cultural identities to the functions of objects—her work tells us that fixed identity is merely something that we perceive because of the many boundaries and differences created by social systems”. 


Captured by the powerful coexistence of poetical and thought provoking elements, we sat down with the artist, explored the various works presented in the exhibition, and dived deep into discussing key elements of her artistic practice. 



Still from Traces, 2015 
Courtesy of the artist and Barakat Contemporary, Seoul  



Valentina Buzzi (VB): A fundamental dimension of your work is based on sound. How did you develop your interest and research in this element?


Nevin Aladağ (NA): Sound is a medium that plays the space in many ways and can serve as a language. It serves as a communication tool, is infinite in the variety of improvisations and thus never sounds the same. For me it is therefore an ideal additional medium to give my abstract objects another level of interaction. By collaborating with musicians and instrument makers, I also learn a lot about the production of sounds.



(VB): Entering the gallery, we immediately notice on the ground floor a partiture displayed on the wall. At a closer look, the signs that mark the note are cannon balls. Could you share some insight about this work, titled Marsch?


(NA): The wall serves as an oversized sheet of music showing the first bars of the "Rondo alla Turca" by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart composed the Allegretto "in the Turkish style". In it, musical motifs occur that imitate "Turkish" percussion instruments as they were used in the Ottoman military music known as "Janissary music". 


The note heads represent spherical segments cast from iron, based on an original 19th-century cannonball from the collection of the Historical Museum Basel. The varying volumes of the segments give the impression that they were shot at the wall with varying force. The work thus recalls the actual function of military music: first and foremost, it serves to prescribe the choreography of troop movements, both in martial battles and in peaceful parades. Music is represented here in a sculptural way. The fields of association remain open and the melody and rhythm take place in the perception of the viewer.  



(VB): The title of the exhibition at Barakat Contemporary, Motion Lines, connects to the intersection between music, form, and movement. Performance and dance are other pivotal elements of your practice. What are some of your fundamental works with performance, and what led you to explore these art forms? 


(NA): Music and dance as forms of expression of cultural identity and interactions in urban spaces, among other things, mark central themes in my work. The performance Raise the Roof (2007) is a choreographed dance performance on a Berlin tar roof near the river Spree. Four dancers move, each for herself, to a song that is not audible to us but is written on their t-shirts. With their stilettos they dance on the tar roof in a rhythmic way, so that the stiletto shoe becomes a percussive instrument and leaves traces of the dance.


Each of the four protagonists wears a T-shirt with the title and duration of her song, which she perceives solely through headphones and moves to its rhythms across the roof as an imagined dance floor. In addition to the privacy of ecstasy that is conveyed, the dance creates a strong impression of freedom and coping with restriction. This intentional linkage draws its motivation in part from the historical relevance of the site, a former border section between West and East Berlin; the roof served as a patrol corridor for GDR border guards and was closely guarded.


I have shown this performance, each time with new dancers and songs, at the Taipei Biennale (2008), the Hayward Gallery (2010), and the Venice Biennale (2017), among others. Each new location and each new dancer once again tells an individual story.



Raise The Roof (Berlin), 2017 
Photo: Daniela Kohl 



(VB): Is performance necessarily human-based in your work, or do instruments assume a performative role? In works like Traces (2015) for example.


(NA): Musical instruments that seem to roll independently through urban space or the sea and meadows can also be understood as performers. Once triggered, they develop a momentum of their own and autonomy, co-directing their own narration in the videos.



(VB): In the multi-channel video Session (2013), and Traces (2015), instruments occupy spaces of the city, as metaphors of deeper socio-cultural instances, connecting to questions of heritage, migration, and identity, for instance. Could you tell us more about these two works?


(NA): Traces (2015) is set in Stuttgart. Here as well as in Session (2013), musical instruments take on the role of protagonists. The instruments range from the simple tambourine to the concert violin, but pan flute, accordion, wind chimes and harmonica are also part of the unusual cast. These are instruments that shaped my youth in the city of Stuttgart, and some of them are made there. The instruments hang from trees, are mounted on playground carousels and street lamps, or roll down stairs and streets and oceans. Set in motion off-camera, the instruments play themselves in the shots. 


Session (2013) portrays the city of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. Here I also researched the instruments that are played there and found mainly Indian, Pakistani and Iraqi drums, and so on, in addition to Arabic instruments. These instruments are migration objects that carry their history of origin and attributions to certain cultural traditions. The history of the instruments moves between places and cultures, they undergo changes in construction, playing style and function. They reflect the fact that music is always a history of influences and a permeable cultural form that is always in flux.


(VB): Going back to the exhibition at Barakat Contemporary, you also present different polyphonic instruments or sculptures, such as “Resonator”, which unite different instruments into one body. Could you tell us more about this work, and about your interest in playing with everyday objects and making your own instruments? 


(NA): The Resonator series begins with the largest sculpture, I like to call this also the "Mother Resonator". This large sculpture unites many instruments, such as different guitars and plucked instruments, as well as various drums, chimes and two wind instruments as a cross in the form of didgeridoos.


Resonator can be played by several musicians at the same time, paying attention to how they influence each other. The sculpture can be played melodically but above all, experimentally, uniting different traditional and classical instruments and letting them develop a common sound together. This union, consideration when playing together and the abstract form of the sculpture tell of a meeting of forms and sounds directed towards the future.


The three smaller resonators are then variations of the large. They are each focused on a family of instruments. In “Resonator Percussion”, only percussive instruments are united. In “Resonator Wind” are only wind instruments and in “In Resonator Strings” only string instruments. The musical sculptures unite different cultural influences in new forms and listening habits and thus always remain in motion.



(VB): In your art there is a peculiar and interesting balance between social, political, and poetic connotations. Messages are never too upfront, but rather unveiled through metaphors, and meaning seems to go hand to hand with a poetical dimension. What is your vision in the role of art today, and how do you explore and balance these different dimensions? 


(NA): In my work there are always different things to discover. I like to tell on different levels, as also described by you. The humor, poetry and the form are elementary, which I want to open a lighter access to the more serious topics. I try to break through social prejudices or fixed descriptions and so on, in which I give new forms and free objects from their originally fixed function. And by adding, for example, guitar strings to an armchair I question it. Through this process, the chair or another piece of furniture thus gets a voice and is perceived differently. This can be transferred to other situations in life and perhaps question other circumstances a little more.



(VB): Lastly, I wanted to ask about your cultural background. You were born in Turkey, but you live and work in Germany. How did both countries, cultures and heritages influence your work?


(NA): Growing up in at least two cultures I have always seen as enrichment. But also traveling, films and various exhibitions have influenced my artistic practice. A recurring theme is the desire to open up new perspectives and break through habits of seeing as well as listening. In addition, the communal is a central theme: the bringing together of materials, forms and sounds that seemingly do not belong together, is to unite.



Motion Lines, a solo exhibition by Nevin Aladağ was on at Barakat Contemporary, Seoul from May 25 - July 24, 2022. For more information about the exhibition, please click here