Apollo Magazine

Crossed wires: the strange music of Tarek Atoui

At his best, the Beirut-born artist offers gallery-goers weird and wonderful new ways of experiencing sound

Installation view of The Organ Within, (2019) at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: © Enid B. Alvarez; © Tarek Atoui

Tarek Atoui found himself at a bit of a loss during the years of lockdown and pandemic. Didn’t we all? But for over a decade, the Beirut-born artist had been developing a practice focused on collaboration – often with large groups of people, wrangling multiple major institutions, sometimes across different countries. All of a sudden that was totally impossible. So he did what so many of us did: he turned his attention to his family.

Working with his own kids and other pupils from their Parisian pre-school, he developed Whispering Playground (2021). Sprawled across a broad grey rug in a large room on the upper floor of Ghent’s Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst (SMAK), there is a whole array of sound-making objects and jury-rigged devices: a snare drum with a handful of ping-pong balls lying on its skin, ready to bounce; a rotating metal plate, the wooden blocks on its surface intermittently striking with a thin crackle against a bundle of twigs jutting into its path from a retort stand and clamp; a brass cymbal onto which water constantly drips from a plastic tube positioned above it; a turntable loaded with records whose grooves have been partially painted over.

Installation view of ‘Tarek Atoui: the Shore/a place I’d like to be’ at S.M.A.K., Ghent, 2024. Photo: Dirk Pauwels; courtesy S.M.A.K.; © Tarek Atoui

Most of these things weren’t making a lot of noise above the general hubbub of the room. But lean in close and you could make out the delicate puttering of water steadily fed, drip by drip, into a transparent bowl with an underwater microphone resting on its floor. Bending down towards the ground and straining my ears at it, it turned out to be an enormously pleasing sound: gently percussive, always changing. It rewards close listening.

In a way, this work is a microcosm of the whole show – not just because several of the techniques for making sounds here also turn up in other, often expanded forms elsewhere. But also because it beautifully captures the artist’s playfulness, his generosity, his fascination with sounds of all sorts. The whole installation at SMAK can be seen as one great playground of whispers. It invites you in – often in surprising and gently enchanting ways.

Installation view of Waters’ Witness (2023) by Tarek Atoui at MCA Sydney. Photo: © Zan Wimberley; © the artist

His 66 Soft Cells (2023), of which about a dozen are placed on a low table in one of two side rooms off the main gallery space, engage the viewer with a simple proposition: stroke the pads to make sounds. Each little hand-sized square is wrapped in a different fabric. Applying pressure triggers a different recording, each one captured in port cities around the world. There’s a delightful incongruity to the pairings: the fluffy white pad made a series of hard clangs as I gently pawed at it, while the smooth, leathery one made a rough scraping sound. The senses switch places with gleeful abandon and the usual gallery interdictions against touching the work are cast out the window.

Several of these instruments were developed through workshops with groups of deaf performers, as part of an ongoing project called WITHIN (2013–). Atoui is a firm believer in expanding notions of listening beyond what passes through the ear. Much of the work here has a tactile musicality. An arrangement of five black i-beams on the floor resembling a minimalist sculpture by Richard Serra or Robert Morris turns out to be a loudspeaker, as I discover after sitting on it and feeling the vibrations ripple through my bum.

Installation view of The Organ Within, (2019) at the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Photo: © Enid B. Alvarez; © the artist

The biggest work from this series – the biggest work in the whole show, in fact – is called Organ Within (2022) and it sprawls across the main room like so many anacondas escaping from a sack. It consists of a big suitcase-sized bellows in the middle, feeding eight corrugated plastic tubes that pump air into a series of different modules. Some of these look like they have been abstracted from an actual church organ; others were clearly once part of someone’s plumbing system, complete with little copper faucets capable of tuning and modulating the sounds emitted from them, like knobs on a steampunk synthesizer.

Atoui was once renowned for the exuberance of his performances, but at the opening night he seems subdued as he stalks from one laptop to another, stepping over the tangled web of his various instruments to try and mouse-click all this stuff into action. Nothing quite seems to come off as it’s supposed to, and the whole concert ends up strangely underwhelming. Later on I’m told that the very large number of attendees in the room affected the already tricky acoustics of the space to such a degree that things just weren’t sounding as they were supposed to. Still, I can’t help but feel that a few years ago, he would have somehow styled it out through sheer chutzpah. Perhaps the pandemic affected the artist in more ways than one. But returning the next day, when things are a little quieter, I’m struck anew by the sense of a room that feels alive: a great electro-pneumatic beast puffing and wheezing in a strange sort of harmony.

Tarek Atoui performing Waters’ Witness at MUDAM, Luxembourg, in 2022. Photo: © Eike Walkenhorst; © the artist

‘Tarek Atoui: the Shore/a place I’d like to be’ is at S.M.A.K., Ghent, until 25 August

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