Israeli multimedia artist Naama Tsabar takes over Kunsthaus Baselland with an orchestra of sonic sculptures.
Rethinking boundaries, borders and bias, “Transitions #4” is Tsabar’s first large-scale solo show in Europe.
There is a certain issue in summoning the words to describe sound art. Readers are typically left with a string of adjectives so tiresome as to render a piece static or dull. And when sound is accompanied by other media – rhythmic music, the human body, spatial reflection, architecture, painting, found objects, performance, gender studies – how is a viewer to contemplate material and method without losing sight of a work’s immediacy? Are these multimedia a way to cross or somehow deconstruct the hierarchical borders that we have built up within the last decades of art history?
Israeli artist Naama Tsabar argues in favour of this deconstruction, her ongoing practice being a catalyst for the renegotiation of medium, concept and display. Between large swaths of felt, cages of microphones, dripping cables, bows and vocals, acts of performance are at once experiments in unexpected sound and boundary crossing. Her laboratory, Switzerland’s Kunsthaus Baselland, has been invaded by three bodies of work – “Transition”, “Works On Felt” and Barricade – in the artist’s first large-scale institutional solo exhibition titled “Transitions #4”. This grouping demonstrates the continuous flux between the visual and the sonic, “the active and the passive”; here, ‘instruments’ are given new sensuous drive and autonomous purpose.
For all the comparisons between musical instruments and human bodies – particularly the guitar as a stand-in for a wasp-waisted woman – relatively few practitioners confront the gendered history of sound art and musical performance. Tsabar is an exception. In “Transitions #4”, a viewer first encounters a series of “Transition” canvases, initially appearing to be large-scale paintings or drawings. But in lieu of pigment, Tsabar uses cables, buttons, connectors, deconstructed amplifiers and speakers in order to create her sensuous, minimal compositions. Whilst performing as hanging sculptures, each piece offers itself as testament to traditional gallery display; each is an aesthetic triumph in the likes of Robert Morris or Joseph Beuys. However, Tsabar’s static arrangements also function as amplified instruments and emit sound once ‘activated’ in performance.
On the lower level of Kunsthaus Baselland’s exhibition space, the “Transitions” appear more related to abstracted minimalist painting than to sound sculptures like Rebecca Horn’s Concert for Anarchy, a piano whose keys haphazardly burst with sound. They hang like treasured cultural artefacts, their full potential only realised in specific moments: it is only through direct interaction that the works come alive. Tsabar states:
For each Transition canvas I took apart an amplifier or powered stage monitor. I took out all the internal and external components — the speaker, knobs, wires, circuit board, etc. I extended the existing wires that run in the circuit board using the same colour and gauge of wire. I used the wires and knobs like a painter’s palette and made the visual compositions on the canvas. All the wires are puncturing through the canvas and connecting back to the circuit board and speaker at the back of the canvas; that way the amplifier gains a new formal visual existence while still retaining its prior functionality. It’s a sculptural painting that has the ability to output sound.
Like her “Transitions”, Tsabar’s series “Work on Felt” also hold potential in their resting states between performances. When summoned by their musician, however, the textile sculptures have a mesmerising effect. During the exhibition’s opening, several female musicians (including Tsabar, who used to be in a punk band) played a set composed especially for the sculptures, accompanied by Fielded (aka Lindsay Powell) on vocals. The felts, in their surprisingly dense timbre, stand equal to Powell’s full-throated voice, with an astounding range of subtleties and textures. The arrangements are stroked, struck or strummed, and hold the capacity to respond and resonate with movement that is as dynamic as the musicians themselves.
The “Work on Felt” iterations look like soft, malleable textiles, but act beyond their materiality. When played, the felt becomes the sound chamber, gallery visitors being audience members of an enclosed gallery symphony. Tsabar’s emphasis on interaction brings these viewers to the fore: it constitutes at once both an intimate relationship between viewer and work, and a public stage-like relationship between one viewer and the next.
Beyond this, there is the relationship between Tsabar’s objects and the sound waves they emit, which, despite their invisibility, are an equally existent extension of the sculptures. The artist explains:
I‘m interested in these in-between states of existence, when an object can change its reading and field of action by its activation; I feel this expands the existence for the objects, it brings them into a more complex sensual existence, one which is much more in tune with the way we experience life. I don’t like authority, to be framed — restricted; these works break the borders that were set for them. They do this by possessing the potential to expand into a different field of action; they are in constant states of transition.
The last segment of “Transitions #4” is a three-dimensional cage of standing microphones entitled Barricade. Arranged in a triangle, the microphones’ cables line the floor in a formal composition, reflecting the path of transmitted sound. Unlike the aforementioned projects, Barricade offers Tsabar’s orchestral audience a way to physically map threads of sound.
The elegant, geometric arrangement here stands as both an obstacle and enabler, directly referencing Tsabar’s interest in transmutable art practice and physical and systematic limitations in performance work. To combat this, any sound picked up within Barricade flows into the different exhibition rooms as each microphone input feeds directly through a disjointed “Transition” canvas.
Such limitations, the artist suggests, are apparent in the “coded behavior” of music and club culture. As a former bartender and bandmate, Tsabar makes reference to the gender roles and expectations implicit in these industries. Her sculptures and performances thus highlight the “aggressive gestures” of rock ‘n’ roll and their associations with masculinity and power and destabilises them. In this undercutting, Tsabar creates charged spaces and multi-sensory zones where nightlife and its negative associations are considered through lenses of “freedom, excess and escape”. Her work treats the gallery itself as a system of control that enables the display of sexuality and bravado, but also, nonetheless, offers a sanctuary away from the realities of the world outside.
Throughout her career, Tsabar has focused on constituting both an intimate and performative relationship with the works and her space; she does not strive to present work that should be admired only for its visual formal qualities, but for its imaginative potential to be something other. “I don’t like authority, to be framed, restricted,” she says. In conversation with writer and curator Ines Goldbach, Tsabar continues:
These works break the borders that were set for them. They do this by possessing the potential to expand to a different field of action; they are in constant states of transition.
Once Tsabar’s sculptures are ‘activated’, they offer a more specific and corporeal relationship between object and performer or spectator. They gain a visual history through these interactions and through their use. Once employed as instruments, the pieces absorb gesture and respond through sound, creating a sonic landscape that attests to a structural renegotiation of boundaries, be they art historical, gendered or otherwise. When asked about the varying dimensions of her work – her multitudinous material, message, performance and systematic rebellion – Tsabar simply states:
I view my practice like a stream, a natural river of sorts – having its own border while passing through those decided on and artificially put in by man.
“Transititions #4” by Naama Tsabar is on view from 20 April to 15 July 2018 at Kunsthaus Baselland, St. Jakob-STrasse 170, CH-4132 Muttenz/Basel, Switzerland.
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