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Annika Kappner, Photo by Pieter Kers ( Courtesy of Sonic Acts.

Amsterdam’s Sonic Acts Biennial marks its 30th year with the two-part exhibition The Spell of the Sensuous, hosted by W139 and Looiersgracht 60. After visiting both spaces Matthew Sturt-Scobie thinks about artists’ roles in addressing ecological uncertainty through the means of humor and enchantment.

Earlier this month, Amsterdam saw the arrival of the Sonic Acts Biennial. This year is a celebratory moment for Sonic Acts, marking its 30th anniversary with a seven weeks-long program titled The Spell of the Sensuous. As the biennial winds up to the sixty-hour climax of its festival weekend, I took the opportunity to visit both W139 and Looiersgracht 60, two venues around which Sonic Acts states their festival’s ‘curatorial underpinnings’ orbit. These aim to ‘echo and give form to the ongoing environmental crisis […] the underexposed histories of contamination, bodily landscapes, and postnatural ecosystems.’ Considering the subject matter and its urgency, I ponder what shape or role each artist might take in this discourse. Will they become arbiters or activists? Further, how will we be left feeling about our distressing reality? 

Amidst the maddening spin of Amsterdam–Centrum, W139 offers an oasis of low-lit calm. There, The Spell of the Sensuous opens with a hall of fabrics and drapery, these carry print, video projection, and even accumulated organic filth. The first of these fabrics, titled The Telepathic Butterfly by British artist and writer Harun Morrison, offers up a short work of prose describing an impossible, sci-fi creature: ‘a fugitive from taxonomy.’ This text sits alongside another of Morrison’s works – a series of prompts on small cards titled Environmental Justice Questions. On one is written ‘If you could talk with a lake, what would you ask?’ Together, these works relate to us a firm sense of what could be the exhibition’s modus operandi – to create moments of poetic speculation that turn our human or scientific perspectives in and around themselves. You could say the work adjacent Waterwill by Brazilian interdisciplinary artist Jota Mombaça, even goes so far as to speak to that aforementioned lake.

Waterwill is made up of a series of ragged, stained, and rusted fabrics, each falling in unique folds from the ceiling. They became what they are today through a process of being submerged in open water – a process we are introduced to through an accompanying video montage. Within it, we witness microcosms of mulches, anemones, sea grasses, slimes, and foams, each imprinting their secretions onto the fabric. The camera lingers just long enough on each drowned work, such that from their shapes emerge a series of decaying, but painterly compositions beneath shimmering ripples. At points, there is a voice-over. One line in particular stands out to me: ‘water will always contain the undone qualities of the sunken – their diluted memory.’ As much as this astounded me on a poetic level, it also highlighted the fact that though the water has bestowed upon the cloth, it has also taken away – digested. 

This overarching sense of infinite exchange or inevitable dissolution is made even more apparent in the work that follows: My Want of You Partakes of Me by duo Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner. After the more intimate tunnel, W139 opens up into an immense open space, that looks as if three stories have been hollowed out into an enormous volume. My Want of You Partakes of Me sits just at the precipice of this expanse. This 56-minute, two-channel video seems at first a dispersed constellation of vignettes. However, it is incredibly rewarding once one manages to find a common thread. I joined the work as it showed a lost sheep being teleported from one area of a sewage treatment plant to another. Was this dark humor? Meant to suggest it would return there eventually in a new, digested form? In other scenes, we flit between real and computer-generated forests, which immediately reminded me of Tuvalu, a South-Pacific island destined to become the first digital country as sea levels subsume it. Then, a hundred small squid pick clean the white bones of a whale carcass in a halo of inky deep. All the while, we are taken through poetry readings and musings on the body, ecology, and colonialism – the fears of becoming other whilst needing to consume; the body swallowing all difference to become its homogenous self (referred to as a hell-mouth). After 56 minutes I was left feeling reprogrammed, enlightened to some either beautiful or disturbing truths. It was hard to tell the difference.

In the same space stands ATER TUMTI, an installation by interdisciplinary artist Annika Kappner. It presents a hugely elaborate new visual identity is presented: banners, symbols, and patterns carrying the same mystic, sci-fi kitsch of an alien-worshipping cult, the Church of Scientology, or an obscure cryptocurrency platform. These visuals form a hexagon comprised of printed banners and a rug. When you enter it you partake in what you might call a video introduction to a new disarmingly charming, pseudo-scientific religious system. This system, much like the neon mollusks that later guide you to Portuguese artist, researcher & film-maker Pédro Matias’s immersive audiovisual installation Dépaysement, speaks to ecosystems’ fluid infrastructures of flux and exchange, which today is left in a state of imbalance and crisis.

Across the city, tucked at the fringes of the Jordaan, the exhibition reemerges in non-profit exhibition centre Looiersgracht 60 in altogether new shapes. My first impression of the space is that of a historical landmark, saved from the brink of ruin. The walls are made up of exposed brick and crumbling plaster. Steel beams hold up the roof and decay has been polished into rather lavish modern angles. Before seeing even what lies within it reminds me of a phrase in the exhibition text: ‘The process of decay is understood as a poetics of metamorphosis and transformation.’ I gravitate first to a freestanding white cube, door ajar, inviting one in. Inside lies Of Breath and Sound: Narrative Strategies for a Contaminating Composition by LASCHULAS COLLECTIVE, an education in how to sonically deliver a panic attack. In a space akin to a sauna, you are bathed in hot, orange light whilst sinister exhales, choked breaths, and what sounds like air passing through medical tubes come together in an asphyxiating soundscape. There are small periods of rest that are only slightly less uncomfortable and by no means relief – you overhear a conversation, distorted as if listening from within a coma. Elsewhere, the breathing leans into the sexual, whilst brooding, tapping synth notes play and rain patters, heard as if from inside a cave. I wonder if this initiation was intentional, placing the audience on edge, and projecting this fright onto works beyond.

Further into the space hangs Residue, Colliding Archives: Chapter 3 by Elena Khurtova and Anika Schwarzlose. At first, it looks like an ancient, lost laundry line, muddied as if having survived a disaster of some kind. Though these cloths sandy, ochre palette I feel it shows how Looiersgracht 60 tonally diverges from W139 — whose more aquatic allusions are counterbalanced by a dry, desolate, dustbowl sensibility. The hanging cloths seem stained with blood and earth, appropriate since they are created using soils taken from the Dutch weapons factory Hembrug. The work is one of a series about the factory, haunted by its participation in Indonesia’s colonisation by the Dutch. Today, the area where the factory once stood is being treated for industrial contamination so that it might be used for new residential buildings. The artists state that this ‘action represents the concealment of an uncomfortable past.’ 

Following Residue, Colliding Archives: Chapter 3, the audience is invited to recuperate in artist duo Touche-Touche’s Oilbath which sits between two, of what they have called Fountains. This Oilbath is materially misleading, as at first glance it seems rather concrete – a fractured, ancient jacuzzi – but as you feel its subtle bow under your weight its polyurethane reality surprises you. It is rather cozy, an ergonomic mass of radioactive blue, split open in places to reveal hidden ammonite fossils. From this position, the Fountains on either side of you become totem-like, fur-rimmed egg-sacks, thuribles of an alien church, emanating a soundscape that brings to mind stone rubble and raw meat. I breathe here for a moment before gathering the strength to head to the final, subterranean level: Lucas Marxt’s series of explorations on the  Salton Sea. 

Marxt  describes the sea as: 

‘a shallow, landlocked, highly saline body of water on the southern edge of California. Blighted by catastrophe, the Salton Sea has been in a constant state of rapid natural transformation due to colonization, nuclear and atomic weapon testing, recreational development, tornadoes, flooding, agriculture, and toxic dust storms.’  

Having been granted the entirety of the basement, Marxt offers up an impressive but well-selected volume of works to weave through: a series of sharply crafted films, a 1:1 plastic replica of the Fat Man atomic missile and its components, and more. Whilst each film is crisp and bleak in its own way, the standout for me is Valley Pride, which seems a condensation not only of Marxt’s broader works but a diagnosis of the themes artists grapple with throughout the festival. In Valley Pride, we enter a world where the whole of nature is bent to an industrialized grid. The earth is faded and parched. Under an endless blue sky, the mountains in the distance are lightly bleached by the sheer volume of air between us and them. In meticulous, mathematically composed frames, human and machine drift together as one from left to right in productive systematized choreography. They have become cyborg, insectoid beasts built to turn the human body into a replaceable component of the larger machine. Everything feels alien, as if our own hell-mouth has already devoured the green of our paradise turning it into inhospitable Mars. 

From the Telepathic Butterfly, all the way to Valley Pride, the works do well to create mental shifts or awakenings to the more-than-human systems beyond ourselves. In doing so, the artists seem strangely apolitical (though they certainly are not), as if they were interstellar passers-by merely presenting to us their retelling of our earth as they see it. We do with that information what we will. Each work carries its unique balance of essayistic, documentary, lyrical, and poetic formulae that rather fluently ‘echo and give form to the ongoing environmental crisis […] the underexposed histories of contamination, bodily landscapes, and postnatural ecosystems.’ The sensuous spell here is a flirtation with your expectation: each work, whether it is the dark humor of What I Want From You Partakes of Me; the promise of rest in Oilbath, or the meticulous geometry of Valley Pride, presents an aspect to enthrall you – concealing the knife of uncomfortable realities behind their back.

Sonic Acts Biennial 2024
Different locations Amsterdam
Exhibitions a.o. at Looiersgracht 60 and W139
Untill March 24

Matthew Sturt-Scobie

is art critic


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