A yellow balloon floats into the white sky, while a flute dangling from it produces a high-pitched note as it ascends. The balloon rises; the sound slowly fades. On a second screen, an accordion is suspended between a lamppost and a seesaw shaped like a Viking longship. As the seesaw rocks back and forth, the accordion releases two alternating, haunting chords. Traces (2015), Nevin Aladağ’s latest three-channel video installation, follows the artist’s interest in how and where music is played, and the way these performances can, in turn, be a metaphor for personal or artistic autonomy, or its impossibility.
The absence of human performers in Traces – shown this summer in Aladağ’s solo exhibition at Wentrup, Berlin, and at Kunstmuseum Stuttgart – reflects a development in the artist’s work. She first gained recognition for her pieces focusing on dance: including videos of young women dancing together on rooftops to individual soundtracks heard through their headphones (Raise the Roof, 2007 and 2010); or ‘Occupation’ (2009–ongoing), flash-mob-like dances she orchestrates at public ceremonies. In these works, spontaneous movement serves as an expression of identity, an idea Aladağ first explored in her 2001 video Familie Tezcan (The Tezcan Family). This early work presents a Turkish immigrant family in a dance studio in Germany. The portly father breaks into a surprisingly accomplished break-dance routine and his wife sings a Turkish pop song, while their three children dance along.
Born in Van, eastern Turkey, Aladağ moved to Germany with her family when she was two years old. Her 2006 video, Voice Over, picks up on the topic of immigration and displacement in a series of night shots of young, Turkish-born Germans singing old Turkish folk songs that sound like laments for a lost love or homeland, performed with surprising fervour for their young age. These scenes are interwoven with close-ups of a drum kit placed outside in the rain, where the downpour’s varying force creates dynamic drum rolls. An underlying sense of absence and melancholia wafts through the songs, augmented by the bleak settings and the playerless instruments.
If the motif of instruments subjected to natural forces seems an all-too-obvious metaphor for solitude, displacement and vulnerability to one’s surroundings, these sequences prompted Aladağ to make a new series of works, this time inspired by specific locations. City Language I (2009) is part of a trilogy forming an audio-visual portrait of Istanbul. Across four screens, we see a flute making sounds as it is held out of a car window, several sets of claves spilling down a public staircase, a tambourine being dragged across water and pigeons pecking for crumbs strewn on a saz (a traditional Turkish lute) and involuntarily hitting its strings. The instruments are played by, as the artist puts it, ‘the elements of the city – by wind, water, architecture and animals’.
Aladağ applied a similar concept in Session (2013), a three-channel video featuring percussion instruments from Pakistan, India and Iraq – countries chosen to reflect the heritage of the workforce in the United Arab Emirates. Made for the Sharjah Biennial that same year, the work shows the drums producing various sounds while rolling down large sand dunes in the desert: they are ‘played’ by brittle loose twigs, waves rolling in and even drops of water from a sprinkler on a well-kept lawn, perhaps outside a luxury hotel. These instruments combined with their ‘players’ hint at an underlying narrative of economic power, cultural heritage and identity.
Unlike with the previous settings for her work, Aladağ chose to film her most recent video, Traces, in Stuttgart, where she spent the majority of her youth. The action largely unfolds in public playgrounds and urban pedestrian areas: in one sequence, a cello rotates on a toy carousel; with each turn, it hits a stationary bow fixed to the ground, producing a note that elongates as the carousel slows. Aladağ has skilfully edited the scenes to create an ambitious musical and visual composition, at turns operatic and slapstick. As soon as a musical thread establishes itself, however, it is quickly interrupted or concluded, as when an accordion hanging from a lamppost slowly submits to gravity, emitting a final, fading moan. Traces, ultimately, is a composition of continuities and ruptures that resists readily identifiable melodies and harmonies, as well as all-too-easy politically correct readings. Aladağ’s ambivalence toward a finite meaning is tangible in the deceptively simple musical devices she creates. Traces is not only a theatre of animated matter, but of cultural references in motion – dynamic and quirky, but more often idling, aimless and melancholic. If the town plays itself, it is moody.
Nevin Aladağ is an artist and writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her 'City Language' trilogy will be presented at Keimathaden Neukölln, Berlin, on 16 September. This year, her work is included in 'Nel Mezzo del Mezzo' at Museo Riso/Albergo dei Poveri, Palermo, Itlay, which opens on 10 October, and 'Berliner Herbstsalon' at the MAxim Gorki Theatre, Berlin, from 13 to 26 November.