Like Raw Materials, Bruce Nauman’s discreet yet astonishing commission for the Tate Modern turbine hall ten years ago, Cevdet Erek’s solo exhibition at Spike Island was visually sparse but remarkably complex in the way in which it addressed the gallery space and the role of sound within it. ‘Alt Üst’ (meaning ‘topsy-turvy’ in Turkish) reconstituted space as a series of invisible and complex auditory pockets, dialling straight into your ears. The large, high room was opened up: emptied, white-walled, but resonant. Cocooned inside, sounds seeped and clicked, pulsed and oozed from white speakers nestled against the walls. To the right of the entrance, two small black speakers emitted puffs of white noise, like compressed air from an aerosol. Beside it, a stack of more speakers – reminiscent of the sculptural pile-ups at carnivals and dance halls – emitted a garrulous voice, endlessly repeating the days of the week. The work, a collaboration with Emptyset (James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas), echoes another piece by Nauman, Days (2009) – a somewhat more cacophonous, choral approach to our structuring of time – but within this context introduced Erek’s distinct and compelling exploration of the perceptual bleed between time (read through experience, memory and history), the body and sound.
Through the disceet installations and the moving clouds of noise that filled the space, Erek’s work consistently played with how sound can inscribe meaning and sensations on the body moving in space. Ruler and Rhythm Studies (2007–11) – perhaps the most incongruous part of the installation – was a series of familiar school-issue Perspex rulers modified to mark not units of measurement but the passage of time and significant historical moments (such as the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923; the new nation’s adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1926; and its change to a Latinized alphabet in 1928).
Two of these rulers also had their own sonic translations, as beeps and tantalizing abstract electronic sequences stripped of their linguistic or mathematical meaning, instead mingling as small parts of a larger spatialized soundscape. Here, Erek reframed distant histories as immersive, local, almost tactile moments of auditory experience.
The topsy-turvy of the title was most impressively displayed in the exhibition’s central, two-part architectural intervention, Alt (2014), an elevated, gleaming white room lit through a glass ceiling by Bristol’s own bleached sky (aptly described by my companion as the ‘blinding subwoofer heaven room’). Inside, there was nothing but the seductive buzz of bass coming from somewhere deep beneath your feet. Seeking out the sound, you came to Üst (2014), installed directly below – a dark, hidden, low-ceilinged room containing with five speakers and drenched in a Jarman-esque (or Kleinian?) blue LED light, which throbbed and pulsed with a rhythmic, tempting, four-to-the-floor beat. ‘Dance, I dare you,’ the room seemed to say. Like moths, people hovered and clustered around each speaker.
Often, where sound is ‘shown’, the bleed is the thing to be fought against, to be shut out. Foamy headphones hang on limp wires, or thick black curtains turn small rooms into aural incubators. Recently, in the pages of this magazine, the writer and composer Paul Schütze wrote of art’s inability to ‘entertain the notion of sound as a vehicle of profound creative importance – one which demands its own sympathetically designed spaces’. Erek, who comes to art from an architectural background, turns these anxieties and apparent failures of exhibition on their head: here is an unsympathetic room, echoey and resonant – an archetypal white cube. But, by allowing the works to bleed into one another, which in turn directs our bodies to move through the space, the artist carves invisible paths across the empty gallery by means of which the discrete works reveal their own individual logic and meaning whilst also producing a coherent whole. The skilled use of ambisonics and directional sound allows Erek to animate his subjects by vibrations and frequencies, by transcribing memories and histories into auditory territories that coax you, move you, maybe even make you dance.