Essay

New Work: Nevin Aladağ

By Rachel Jans, December 2019

What if a mandolin, a bass, and a guitar all shared a single body? How would it sound if they were then joined with drums, chimes, and didgeridoos? Nevin Aladağ frequently uses music and musical instruments in her sculptures, collages, performances, and videos to consider the ways identities are made and communities are formed. Born in Turkey and raised in Germany, where she continues to live and work, Aladağ playfully explores relationships among cultures, traditions, and geographies. The artist’s most recent series, Resonator (2018–present), combines musical instruments from around the world as abstract geometric forms to create new sounds. These works are featured at SFMOMA in her first solo exhibition in the U.S., accompanied by wall hangings from her series Social Fabric (2014–present). The sculptures bring together elements of disparate heritage, inspiring wonder and curiosity as they engage themes of transformation and belonging.

1. Nevin Aladağ, City Language I, 2009 (still); split-screen video projection, with sound, 4:45 min.; courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin; © Nevin Aladağ

2. Nevin Aladağ, Table Santouri (Music Room, Athens), 2017; wood, strings, santouri mechanism, and horn, 23 x 30 1/2 x 30 1/2 in. (58.5 x 77.5 x 77.5 cm); courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin; © Nevin Aladağ

Resonator emerges from Aladağ’s ongoing investigations of place and the distinct voices and traditions of different locales. Among her earliest explorations of this theme is the poetic City Language I (2009, fig. 1), a split-screen video projection in which a variety of Turkish instruments are brought to life by the elements and sites of Istanbul. A tef, a Turkish tambourine, surfs along the Bosporus, sounding with the river’s current; a kaval, a traditional flute, is held out a car window to warble in the wind; pigeons in a city square peck at the strings of a bağlama, a Turkish lute. In the enchanting three-channel video Traces (2015), Aladağ envisions Stuttgart, Germany, as a musical playground—a rocking horse plays a tambourine, triangles hanging from a tree are cast about in the wind, and a violin rides a merry-go-round, its strings stroked by a bow with every full turn. The city of her childhood becomes a place of amazement, a soundscape created seemingly of its own volition. More recently, in her Music Room works (2014–present, fig. 2), Aladağ transforms sets of living room furniture, chairs, tables, and even a coat rack into playable musical instruments. In all of these compositions, instruments serve as proxies for the human body; the artist implicitly asks how we relate to and are shaped by where we exist, belong, and live.

3. Nevin Aladağ, Resonator, 2018; wood, paint, metal, harp, chimes, drums, didgeridoos, leather, and acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and mandolin mechanisms and strings, 123 5/8 x 95 1/4 x 89 3/4 in. (314 x 242 x 228 cm); courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin; © Nevin Aladağ

Taking an expansive view of kinship, Resonator incorporates components of musical instruments into heterogeneous sculptures capable of making sound. The first and largest work from the series, itself titled Resonator (2018, fig. 3), juxtaposes different sections of the orchestra—as well as multiple geographies and traditions—to produce a single complex yet unified form. Just over ten feet tall, it joins string, percussion, and wind instruments: A hollow horizontal cylinder radiates a variety of drums, while a pyramid mounted to its face brings together the strings of a mandolin and bass and acoustic guitars. This compound rests atop a square base skirted by a fringe of metal chimes, and a pair of didgeridoos extend into the space above. The relationships among the work’s discrete parts and the ways they fit and sound together challenge and expand their individuality and their sonic potentials.

With the didgeridoos reaching skyward, the structure resembles a beacon—a tower of transmission for the polyglot sounds of a hybrid social and cultural order. By recalling an architectural construction, the work and its location become a site, its emission and amplification of sound beckoning people forth, gathering a community, perhaps marking a time or an event. As the philosopher and media historian John Durham Peters has noted, towers “can be seen and heard from great distances. . . . Carillons, minarets, pulpits, lifeguard stands, and radio and television antennas all show that a small vertical investment yields circumferential dividends.”1 Tall structures with the capacity to broadcast sound—whether bell towers or the Eiffel Tower—have served powerful functions throughout history in organizing and upholding nations, religions, and commerce.2 Resonator alludes to these functions and histories as a tower of many noises and resonances that both call out to and transmit the sounds of new alliances.

The Resonator series also considers the complexities of belonging. Drawing on the legacy of assemblage—artworks pieced together from found objects—the sculptures suggest conditions of fracture, dispersal, and displacement. Inspired by the first Resonator’s multipart structure, the three additional works from the series, created for this exhibition, combine found and fabricated instruments from different traditions but the same families—wind, string, and percussion, respectively. These pieces dismantle the sovereignty of a single resonating body and reimagine the possibilities of form through unexpected combinations. They accentuate shared traits through a simplified vocabulary of circles, squares, triangles, and other elemental shapes. Resonator Wind (2019, fig. 4) is a gleaming brass sphere with found mouthpieces from various wind instruments—panpipe, flute, tuba, and saxophone—emanating from its reflective surface. A triangular steel agogo serves as the base for Resonator Percussion (2019, fig. 5); it is topped by a cube of geometric, leather-covered drums and a skirt of bells. A string quartet—bass guitar, acoustic guitar, cello, and zithercompose Resonator Strings (2019). By gathering instruments from around the globe and assembling each type with other members of its dispersed musical family, these smaller Resonator works highlight a common history of sound-making objects across time and space.

4. Nevin Aladağ, Resonator Wind, 2019; brass, bamboo, and mouthpieces from wind instruments; 31 1/2 x 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (80 x 100 x 100 cm); courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin; © Nevin Aladağ; photo: Trevor Good
5. Nevin Aladağ, Resonator Percussion, 2019; stainless steel, plywood, leather, and bronze; 37 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (95 x 100 x 100 cm); courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin; © Nevin Aladağ; photo: Trevor Good
4. Nevin Aladağ, Resonator Wind, 2019; brass, bamboo, and mouthpieces from wind instruments; 31 1/2 x 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (80 x 100 x 100 cm); courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin; © Nevin Aladağ; photo: Trevor Good
5. Nevin Aladağ, Resonator Percussion, 2019; stainless steel, plywood, leather, and bronze; 37 3/8 x 39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (95 x 100 x 100 cm); courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin; © Nevin Aladağ; photo: Trevor Good

The sculptures explore both the apparent contradictions and the fluidity between marking a place and being on the move. The physical phenomenon of sound does not adhere to borders; it travels, bounces, and echoes through space and material. As the artist and theorist Brandon LaBelle has noted, “Sound, in moving away from a source, to circulate and propagate through environments, and through matters and bodies, is deeply linked to expressions of migration and transience.”3 Music is among the most mobile forms of culture, as melodies and songs are carried across borders with bodies and through broadcast or recordings. Aladağ thus literalizes the mingling of music practices and traditions through her creation of structures that bring together instruments from various backgrounds. The idea of belonging takes root not only through the recuperation of disparate parts into unified material objects but also through filling, even exceeding, a space with sound.

By definition, the strings, drumheads, and hollow bodies that compose these sculptures are all resonators, elements that either generate or amplify sound. The artworks are responsive entities, not passive objects, and when plucked, stroked, strummed, or puffed into, they answer with vibrations. They possess an enchanting power to instigate interaction, drawing performers to explore and experience their noises. Tapping into a multiplicity of senses, including visual, aural, and tactile, they compel musicians to improvise choreography as they physically negotiate the works. These relationships among individual parts and between performer and sculpture are intertwined with Aladağ’s sense of play. Play can be understood as a social activity, carried out in a group on a path of shared discovery, with no given rules or stated objectives. The sculptures invite play as a social model for navigating a complex world. They offer what LaBelle refers to as “vibratory models of alliance . . . [supporting] constructs of togetherness that may carry great social and political potential.”4

Artist Biography

German artist Nevin Aladağ was born in 1972 in Van, Turkey, and currently lives and works in Berlin. She studied at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich. Aladağ has had solo exhibitions at Mönchehaus Museum Goslar, Germany; Kunsthal 44Møen, Denmark; Kestner Gesellschaft, Hanover, Germany; STUK, Leuven, Belgium; Albertinum, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany; Lentos Kunstmuseum Linz, Austria; Arter, Istanbul; and Tanas, Berlin, among other venues. She has also participated in many group exhibitions, including And Berlin Will Always Need You, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; Big Orchestra, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt; Water Lines, the High Line, New York; Worlds Otherwise Hidden, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Missouri; Open Spaces 2018, Kansas City; documenta 14, Kassel, Germany, and Athens; the 57th Venice Biennale; Sharjah Biennial 11, United Arab Emirates; the 11th Istanbul Biennial; the 8th Taipei Biennial; and the XIV Biennale Internazionale di Scultura di Carrara, Italy.

Works in the Exhibition

All works are by Nevin Aladağ (German, born Turkey, 1972) and are courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin.

Resonator
2018
Wood, paint, metal, harp, chimes, drums, didgeridoos, leather, and acoustic guitar, bass guitar, and mandolin mechanisms and strings

Resonator Percussion
2019
Stainless steel, plywood, leather, and bronze

Resonator Strings
2019
Plywood, spruce, multiplex, paint, zither strings, bass guitar strings, acoustic guitar strings, and cello strings and mechanisms

Resonator Wind
2019
Brass, bamboo, and mouthpieces from wind instruments

Social Fabric, Noise
2019
Carpet pieces on wood in artist’s frame

Social Fabric, Percussion
2019
Carpet pieces on wood in artist’s frame

Social Fabric, Resonator
2019
Carpet pieces on wood in artist’s frame

Social Fabric, Strings
2019
Carpet pieces on wood in artist’s frame

Social Fabric, Vibration
2019
Carpet pieces on wood in artist’s frame

Social Fabric, Wind
2019
Carpet pieces on wood in artist’s frame

Notes

  1. John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 233.
  2. For Durham’s account of the social and historical functions of bells and towers, see ibid., 226–43.
  3. Brandon LaBelle, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (London: Goldsmiths Press, 2018), 19.
  4. Ibid., 3.

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Cite as: Rachel Jans, “New Work: Nevin Aladağ,” December 2019.


San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/essay/new-work-nevin-aladag/

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Rachel Jans

Rachel Jans

Rachel Jans is assistant curator of painting and sculpture at SFMOMA.
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