Art Music

Listen Closely to Tarek Atoui

Tarek Atoui’s solo New York exhibition “The Whisperers”
Image courtesy of the artist and The FLAG Art Foundation.

Serpentine cords crawled across the floor at the FLAG Art Foundation this past Friday. Born from oxidized cymbals, the swirling sounds traveled through stretches of transducers, echoing throughout the Chelsea institution’s floors. The Paris-based artist and sound composer Tarek Atoui’s solo New York exhibition “The Whisperers” crescendoed last week with a closing night performance by composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe.

Perched on the floor amidst Atoui’s installation of participatory sound-generating pieces and meandering throughout the space to inspect the instruments’s details, the audience was immersed in Lowe’s orchestration of audio entirely recorded from the show. “There were no outside sounds—everything came in from this space,” the composer explained of his almost one-hour long performance.

Between the familiar and the otherworldly, the sonic waves throughout the evening both soothed viewers and kept them on their toes, switching between placid tunes and chaotic human cacophonies through the end. They were, in fact, Atoui’s recordings of children playing at his son’s kindergarten in Paris during the city’s lockdowns. Abstracted yet audibly discernible, the jovial echoes are only one component of the auditory mosaic within the show that traveled to New York from the Contemporary Austin as part of Atoui’s reception of the Suzanne Deal Booth/FLAG Art Foundation Prize last summer. “The totally opposite interiors of FLAG influenced two different installations,” Atoui told CULTURED. “The museum in Austin had a fully open space so the works could talk to one another, while the FLAG’s ninth and tenth floor spaces in a building offered refuge and audial delicacy for the pieces to whisper.”  

The Beirut-born artist’s immersive sound installations have occupied various interiors across the globe, such as a disused school gym for his Okayama Art Summit participation in Japan in 2019 or a 15th century Turkish bath for the 17th Istanbul Biennial last fall. Whether those with traits of former lives or sleek white cubes, the space becomes a blank canvas for Atoui’s sonic gestures generated by intricate structures that he composes with a sculptural sensibility. “There was an overlap between the natural reverberation and the acoustics of the Turkish bath and the way I amplify the sounds—the artificial and natural acoustic blended,” he added.

On view since October, “The Whisperers” invited viewers to experience familiar textures such as water, glass, metal, and bronze through the vibration of sounds. The outcomes were multi-sensory: the sensation of touch bore ambient harmonies through poetic compositions of objects. By putting their hands into a bowl of water in Totem, 2021, the audience could feel vibrations from Atoui’s compositions; Drum Club, 2021 featured cymbals piled over a drum which reverberated the sound of thin brass discs hitting each other through an amplifier. Infinite Ballet Solo, 2021-22 embodied its title’s hint of movement with an 10-foot brass chain circulating over a cymbal touched by a sound-transmitting brass rod. Plants lived inside a water-filled stone basin in Underwater birds, 2022, which released music through underwater speakers and suggested hand dipping. Whispering Playground 3, 2021 prompted play—a key element in children’s early education—with instruments and objects such as a stethoscope, balls, vintage vinyl, a turntable, and more water. 

Activation is key in Atoui’s visual universe, not only through the viewer’s tactile engagement but also his system of constantly recording the spatial sounds to feed back into the experience. Echoes, delays, replays, and booms create a ceaseless transformation. For Atoui who also works with people hearing impaired in his sound projects, hearing is a tactile experience as well. “Touching surfaces and feeling vibrations can be a way to hear,” he said. “The Whisperer in this sense is an invitation to listen differently.”