by Aoife Donnellan // Mar. 26, 2021
Nik Nowak’s work is primarily concerned with the relationship between space and sound. His oeuvre is embodied in performance, installation, sculpture, audio, video, painting, among other mediums. But in his installations currently on view at KINDL Centre For Contemporary Art and at Alexander Levy, he examines the political history of sound as well as its effects on the body. Both exhibitions interrogate examples of how sound has manifested itself as a violent force throughout history.
Nowak’s audio-visual installation at KINDL, ‘Schizo Sonics,’ examines the history of sound as a weapon and as an invasive force, which has the ability to penetrate physical boundaries without breaking enemy lines. Large sections of the Kesselhaus at KINDL are filled with gravel and sand, on which yellow and black bollards support a barbed-wire fence. On either side of the fence there are two sculptural works; ‘Panzer’ (2011) and ‘Mantis’ (2019). The works look at political sonic warfare close to home: Beginning East of the Wall in 1961, the East German military played Soviet martial music, Communist Party Songs and other propaganda over the Wall to drown out a speech by German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. This prompted the West to fund ‘Studio am Stacheldraht,’ a fleet of mobile transmission studios who retaliated by playing political propaganda materials at a decibel louder than a jet engine across the Wall. ‘Mantis’ resembles a mechanical digger, with a speaker at the end of its outstretched arm, and mimics the machinery used in Berlin during this time, “the war of the loudspeakers.” ‘Panzer’ has a more streamlined appearance, with one large speaker block attached to a tracked vehicle. ‘Panzer’ is meant to resemble the style of speaker used in the Jamaican General Elections of the 1970s, during which the island was divided along “sonopolitical” lines.
The history of the uses of these speakers is outlined in the audio playing from them. The 43-minute audio work is split into four sections, beginning at the origins of the sound war between East and West Berlin and ending in the contemporary uses of sonic warfare along the North and South Korean border. Rhythmic music accompanies speeches, collected sounds, and a measured voiceover explaining how each particular moment in history was influenced by weaponised sound. It explains how speakers would blare propaganda, music, and speeches across enemy lines in an effort to corrupt and disrupt the daily lives of those on the other side. After each narrative section there is collected historical audio as well as music. The intensity of the audio captures the violent potentials of sound. Any brief silence becomes a welcome rest, emphasizing the stressful effects of continuous sound on the body. The ringing of a bell and siren-like noises appear, reinforcing the feeling of panic throughout the piece.
Visitors have the opportunity to traverse the installation, to stand face to face with the machines. Experiencing the movement and pressure in your body from the volume of the sound solidifies the experiential element of the exhibition. The 20-metre tall ceilings of the Kesselhaus bolster the effects of the work, creating a 6-second echo, which attaches itself to every sound. A taxidermied fox stands close-by, at the edge of the wall separating the works. The audio explains that there is a rumour in Berlin that even after the fall of the Wall, the foxes living in the city will not traverse the historic border. This inclusion assists Nowak’s examination of the immaterial walls created by sound and how they shape patterns of movement in space.
Nowak’s series of ceramic works at Alexander Levy differs from his previous technological, mechanical, and aural approach to capturing the dimensions of sound. In ‘12 Töne’ he has created a number of cone-shaped ceramics, each embodying varying degrees of movement, ranging from agony to serenity. They resemble antique ear trumpets, and have each been altered in shape, colour, and dimension. The use of ceramic invites a delicate and tactile experience of the idea of sound. Each sculpture looks as if the sounds that have passed through it have formed its contour, capturing the spiritual and metaphysical effect of sound on the body.
The sculptures are accompanied by complex collages with pieces of soundproofing material, photographs of performance, acts of war, enormous speakers, corroded metal, medical diagrams of an ear canal, sketches of mechanical horns, robotic arms, and engines, as well as a mélange of other sound-related images and materials. The dialogue between the chaotic collages and the serene ceramics makes for an exhibition that manages to capture the physical potential of sound. The noise and collision of the plans on paper and the gentle slope of the traumatised ceramic highlights the difference between thinking about sound in space and representing it.
In the corner of the space, a matriarch, ‘Patricia’, and patriarch, ‘Horn #27’, appear side-by-side. The queen stands and the king lays on its side, in defeat. The standing figure guards a large image of Nowak, taken during a performance at Berghain. This silent photograph of a sound performance is a playful reminder of the topic of the exhibition. The ways in which bodies experience and represent sound is omnipresent in the silent space. The stills of live performance, the speechless horn shapes, and the noisy collages come together to create a cacophony of embodied sound.
Both exhibitions work in tandem to represent the potential of the aural in Nowak’s work. ‘Schizo Sonics’ exposes the tension sound can create both politically and in the physical body. ‘12 Töne’ moves forward with this idea of the embodied effects of sound. Sound both originates from and affects the ceramic horn shape, to form contorted silhouettes that create outlines of the palpability of sound. Nowak’s appreciation for the corporeal aspects of sound is fertile ground for a powerful reflection on the immaterial influences that steer bodies through space and time.