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Tarek Atoui: Riding the wave of experimental, innovative musical forms

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A multi-layered artistic project that is ambitious in scope and reach, featuring the leading international sound artist and composer Tarek Atoui, has been underway at the Sharjah Art Foundation since September 19 last year.

Atoui, born in Beirut, Lebanon, lives and works in Paris.

Curated by Hoor Al Qasimi, Director of Sharjah Art Foundation, ‘Tarek Atoui: Cycles in 11’ is a major solo exhibition celebrating over a decade of Atoui’s collaboration with the Foundation and the surrounding community.

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The exhibition --- on view till April 10, 2021--- centers around experimental and innovative musical forms and offers audiences opportunities to learn about and explore instrument-making, compositional structure and musical collaboration.

In the foreword to the catalogue, Al Qasimi notes: “Research and experimentation have been fundamental to Atoui’s methodology as an artist and composer. He has worked for extended periods with other artists and musicians and led workshops with specific communities and members of the general public that culminated in performances.”

“Atoui’s impressive body of work continues to inspire us, and we are most grateful for his continued relationship with the Foundation as it has had a profound influence on how we have grown as an institution,” she adds.

Atoui responds, in conversation with Al Qasimi: “The long-term collaboration with Sharjah Art Foundation not only introduced me to the art world and initiated my work as an artist dealing with sound, but it also allowed me to develop my work and think about education, about transmission, and honestly, to grow as a human being. It has really been quite remarkable.”

Atoui’s journey into music and instrument making began from France having travelled to Paris at the age of 18 in 2000 to study electronic music. “I chose to study sound, the phenomenology of sound -- not music. This and the idea of instruments came because I was very much interested in being on stage, doing concerts, performances, and sharing this with people. So building my own electronic instruments was a starting point,” he says in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

Tarek Atoui, the leading international sound artist and composer. (Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation)
Tarek Atoui, the leading international sound artist and composer. (Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation)

“I was very much in love with music. But in Beirut I never thought I would be a musician or imagined myself as someone who would be doing this kind of work. I have seen and discovered things which I was not aware of in Lebanon then when I was young,” he says

“Technology was also very much part of the music scene in France, much more than in Middle East at that time.”

The breakthrough moment for Atoui “came in 2009 when I undertook a residency in Sharjah and presented the resulting work—titled ‘Undrum/Strategies for surviving noise’ for the first time at the Sharjah Biennale 9 the same year.”

International and critical acclaim followed and the performances were staged at the Maison Rouge, Paris (2009), and New Museum, New York (2010).

“The title of my present show ‘Cycles in 11’ is in homage of that work here 11 years ago. Sharjah is an amazing place,” he says.

Auoui describes his practice as “a mixture between music and sound art.”

“From Sharjah, my work became quite international. Went all over the world literally with the things that I was doing – from performances, exhibitions, teaching, to workshops. Everywhere that I went, I did concerts too.”

He recalls that these concerts were not actually performed at a normal venue but more in outdoor places. “The first time it took place in the Arts Square in Sharjah. And places where you don’t expect concerts to happen.”

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When it comes to describing his thoughts on the present exhibition ‘Cycles in 11’, Atoui says it is as generous a gesture as possible, offering to the people of Sharjah a lots of things to listen to. And lot of works that talk to the ear, the eye, and the body and takes them on a journey into things that traverse prehistoric elements such as stones and ceramics to very digital and technological things, taking in the history of instrument making in many ways and in civilizations.”

The works in the exhibition represent the culmination of the artist’s ongoing exploration of different methods of listening, composition and performance.

The instruments that Atoui has created are the product of extensive research into music history and tradition as well as collaborations with different experts.

Challenging established ways of listening through innovative approaches to sound, the instruments also build on the artist’s earlier project WITHIN, which grew out of years of work with Deaf culture. This project, originating in Sharjah, investigated how deafness can influence the way sound performance, space and instrumentation are understood.

The Ground, 2020. (Courtesy of the artist and Vitamin Creative Space).
The Ground, 2020. (Courtesy of the artist and Vitamin Creative Space).

Speaking about sound art and instrument making, he says “internationally, there are many others in the field now, inventing new instruments or experimenting with sound. Not only in Europe, but in other parts of the world too.”

For anyone wanting to venture into electronic music and instrument making, his one-word advice is: “Patience.”

Residency program

‘Tarek Atoui: Cycles in 11’ is also the launch pad for a residency program, inviting 13 musicians, composers and artists, selected through an open call, as well as Resident Advisors to the emirate and also organized an elaborate program of public performances in Sharjah and in Kalba.

The aim of the residency program is to develop new works that interact with the installations within the main exhibition. The residency will give the artists an opportunity to conduct research, collect data and records, access relevant sites and site-specific materials, and contribute to the development of a public program while receiving mentorship and support for the development of their projects from Atoui and the assigned Resident Advisors.

A public programme, led by the residents and advisors, will also take place alongside the residency and will include workshops, presentations and pop-up performances as well as papers or publications.

Throughout the residency period, the Foundation’s heritage venue Bait Al Serkal will operate both as a sound lab and a performance and listening space while another sound lab will be set up close to Sharjah’s natural reserves and archaeological sites in the east coast city of Kalba.

As part of the exhibition and Residency Program, live performances presenting new work will happen today (January 22) in Bait Al Serkal. Sound artists Igor Porte, Ivan Macera and Christine Kazarian will activate the heritage house through performances that interact with the installations on view.

Ten others – musicians composers and artists - participating in the programme will be presenting their work in the course of next two months.

Fridays at Bait Al Shamsi

Also taking place every Friday in the Arts Square are a number of creative workshops and live music performances for the whole family.

This family-focused event in the open-air courtyard of the heritage venue Bait Obaid Al Shamsi begins from 4 p.m. onwards.