Her music rooms have been exhibited worldwide. Nevin Aladağ explains how to turn wardrobes into cellos and tells about her first work with a hip-hop dancing family.

Many of your works explore cultural and social identity. You yourself were born in Turkey and grew up in Germany. Was there a specific point in time when you realized you were addressing your own personal history and background in your art?

That’s obviously something I’m often asked about, but nobody ever asked me when I first consciously did so. To be honest for a long time I wasn’t aware that my cultural background played any role at all. As an artist, when you begin to study, and you are still young you don’t initially give any thought whatsoever to what influences are apparent in your art. At the Academy in Munich it was more a matter of what influences from Pop culture were at work in our minds or what materials we were interested in. I only really became conscious of it while working on my final project as a student, with my video piece “The Tezcan Family.”  

Why this project?

Actually, I was looking for a breakdancer for my video work “The Man Who Wanted to Jump Over His Shadow” and got to know a lot of people from the beatbox scene. Cengiz happened to be one of them, and like me has Turkish origins. His wife always came to the training sessions and told me that it was not only her husband who danced, but the entire family. I loved the fact that dance and music play such a big role within the family, so I asked if I could film them. Similarly, for my own family it’s quite normal to join in the singing and dancing wherever you are. These are forms of expression that are acceptable for both genders. What I found interesting about the Tezcan family is that they chose American hip-hop as their family tradition and overruled its hierarchies. I also found it fascinating that the family has Turkish origins and so many things in common with my own; however, that was not something that I was on the lookout for, it was just a happy coincidence.

I loved the fact that dance and music play such a big role within the family.

Nevin Aladağ

Nevin Aladağ, The Tezcan Family © Nevin Aladağ, Image via nevinaladag.com

So, did this video influence your subsequent works?

Of course, it had a strong impact on the public perception of my work. After all, I exhibited the video internationally on quite a few occasions and suddenly this work stood very strongly for me and was read along with my biography. It was at that moment that I myself accepted the connection. Even if it’s based on a coincidence, there are certain reasons why you come across something.

Many of your works show how you enjoy breaking with the traditional norms of sculpture, as  in “Music Room”. For this work which is on show in the SCHIRN’s “Big Orchestra” exhibition you turned pieces of furniture into musical instruments.

Absolutely! However, the first “Music Room” was created for an exhibition in Mons, Belgium, that Dirk Snauwaert curated. I rifled through second-hand stores for furniture items that not only appealed to me but were also easy to work with when it came to making musical instruments from them. For example, if I wanted to make a guitar I needed sturdy backrests that would make good bases for attaching strings. The first “Music Room” was also designed to be played. There was a chair that was a harp, and a coat stand that was a cello. Later I suggested to Adam Szymczyk that the idea could be used for the documenta 14 in Kassel and Athens. I wanted to make a larger music room and look for typical furniture and instruments in Athens. Adam encouraged me to have the music room regularly activated.

During my research in Athens I realized how many parallels there were to the music room I had previously created for Rampa Gallery in Istanbul. There were many instruments that look similar or produced similar sounds. We assembled the furniture from various shops and private households and tried to build the instruments so they were still recognizable as furniture. A table that sounds like a santouri or a chair like a harp. Of course, some items had to be amplified because not all of them had their own body, but still their original character was maintained. You might say the furniture was given a voice.

You might say the furniture was given a voice.

Nevin Aladağ

Did you have a certain composition when the instruments were activated or was everything freestyle?

We improvised. But we did try it out beforehand so that everybody could get a feeling for the instruments and one another. I was also adamant that we should not play any pre-existing melodies. We always had two or at the most four musicians present for every performance, and ideally, they were to change instruments during the performance. I liked it if there was a small sequence but nothing rehearsed. The musicians very much responded to each other and they told a new story each time they performed.

The title of the work refers to the music rooms of the 19th-century,when such a room was also a status symbol. However, in your version the private room is transferred into the public space and the furniture suddenly gains an additional function. And even if it is musicians who perform, the work itself still suggests that in theory anybody could activate the furniture and play an instrument.

Yes, that’s true. To be honest that is the greatest liberation. First of all, the furniture is liberated and no longer needs to serve only a practical purpose because somebody like me who can’t play any instrument particularly well can interact with it, meaning that music need not by any means be about having skills or certain techniques. Obviously that’s great, and I admire that too, but this work functions regardless of whether you have a sense for harmony, and encourages improvisation.

This work also functions regardless of whether you have a sense for harmony.

Nevin Aladağ
Nevin Aladağ, Music Room, Brussels, 2015 exhibition view© Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, 2019, Photo: Marc Krause

The video installation “Traces” which was also shown at the Venice Biennale 2017 works on the same principle. For this, you had various instruments interact with the urban landscape of Stuttgart. A tambourine is played by a rocking horse, a harmonica is inflated by a balloon. The musical instruments liberate themselves from their traditional connotations and conventions. 

Here the instruments are suddenly independent, autonomous bodies seemingly moving in the landscape of their own volition. Life is breathed into them. People are no longer needed to play them. The instruments simply appropriate the space and stand for the society of the city.

In this case the society of the town you grew up in.

Yes, but not only. For the Sharjah Biennale 2013 I made the video “Sessions”, which is similar but also very different. For that piece I had to begin by getting an idea of the life and population because prior to my invitation to the Biennale I didn’t know anything about Sharjah and the Emirates. As its workforce is largely Pakistani, Iranian and Iraqi I looked for instruments they had taken with them from their native countries. And then the instruments in the video became representatives of this society.

There is something quite fascinating about this discrepancy you describe. Essentially, the instruments come to represent the population in a landscape in which they do not really belong at all.

Yes, you’ve put that really beautifully. Someone once said to me that you really sense how these instruments have to subject themselves to the landscape. First climatically because it is really very hot, and but of course also owing to the working conditions, and even more fundamentally the living conditions.

The instruments in the video became representatives of this society.

Nevin Aladağ

In your performance “Raise the Roof” it is the stiletto shoe that becomes an instrument by having performers wearing them dance on small platforms with copper surfaces. While each performer can only hear their own song via headphones and moves accordingly the audience hears a pot pourri of sound accompanying all the movements being executed on the copper surfaces. In other words, the melody completely unravels. Where do you see the difference between music and sound?

As you saidmusic is always composed which makes it relatively predictable, because there are certain harmonies or rhythms that serve as a guide. Sound by comparison is more the unexpected, the uncontrollable. What I find exciting is what happens when you expose yourself to sound. In another work of mine for example I created a clip from videos of clapping hands. And though initially there is no classical rhythm to be heard the longer you listen you are able to filter out harmonies, because the brain modifies the sound until it sounds harmonious. I believe that these random sounds get more attention precisely because they are not played in an expected sequence.

Sound by comparison is more the unexpected, the uncontrollable.

Nevin Aladağ
Nevin Aladağ, Raise the Roof, 57th International Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy, 2017, Courtesy the artist and Wentrup, Berlin

Another thing I find fascinating about this work is that there are different modes to it. Even when the dancers no longer sing on the platforms the energy of the performance continues to resonate through the hammered copper surface. The small dents immediately made me think of bullet holes. In other words, the sexy symbol of a stiletto is reversed.

The stiletto per se has a connotation of being sexy, but simultaneously it also represents self-confidence. Many women wear high heels because it makes them feel stronger. I wanted to produce a reading in which the shoe suddenly also has a practical function. It becomes a hammer that stamps the surface, a musical instrument and also a dangerous tool.