American composer Bill Fontana is famous for his pioneering work in the world of sound art. He is particularly interested in amplifying the sounds that we might – as hurried passersby in a hectic life – miss out on. He has travelled to many cities around the world catching hidden and quirky sounds and bringing them to life in his sound sculptures.
Part of the Abu Dhabi Music Festival’s mission is to bring innovation to the Middle Eastern audiences as well as contribute to modern art’s development. As such, the festival commissioned Bill Fontana to bring his art to Abu Dhabi as well as create some new sound sculptures particular to the Emirati city.
Fontana presented many peculiar sound installations, such as Australian Eclipse, where he captured the sounds of a tropical rain forest at the time of a total eclipse, a rare moment in time. He explains that right before the total eclipse took place, the rain forest was alive with the chirping and melodic singing of several species. Yet, as soon as darkness fell, there was complete silence. The sound sculpture was recorded in 1976 and this was the first time it was included in an exhibition; before then, it was only broadcasted on the radio.
For the commission, Fontana chose two separate locations: the Sheikh Zayed Bridge, designed by distinguished Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, and the Abu Dhabi desert. The selection of the two locations was made, according to Fontana, because they both have undiscovered sounds. The artist attempted to catch the essence of the city, where desert meets modernity and sleek design.
As part of the exhibition, the festival commissioned renowned local artist Mohammed Kazem to present his latest conceptual work. This resulted in a piece entitled Directions (Circle), where he used numbers, letters and symbols to deconstruct the figure of the circle. More specifically, Kazem chose to highlight Emirati geography using GPS data to outline several natural environments within the deconstructed circle. Hence, the impersonality of data is transformed into something more meaningful.
To celebrate and encourage local artists, the festival also launched the Gulf Capital-Abu Dhabi Festival Visual Arts Award. UAE students were invited to attend a lecture by Bill Fontana in January and then create a proposal for an artwork. For 2014, the winner of the highly competitive award was Moza Obeid Al Suwaidi, a fashion design student at HCT Sharjah Women’s College. She chose to highlight the symbol of the palm, which she describes as “a symbol of generosity”. She recorded the sounds of palm trees in Al Thaid, a district in the Sharjah emirate. The location is known for its seclusion and distance from urbanity. She also presented a colourful burqa made entirely of palm.
Finally, the exhibition featured the work of three students studying in Abu Dhabi and were mentored by Fontana. They accompanied him on his trips as he recorded the sound installations and then they presented their own interpretation of the city. Fatima Abdulrahman and Hourlya Naser from Zayed University presented a sound sculpture with the theme of a treasure chest to highlight the city’s culture. Meanwhile, Manuel Nivia of New York University Abu Dhabi chose to fuse Abu Dhabi’s urban sounds with electronic beats to create a modern melody with a trace of familiarity.
The exhibition continues at the Emirates Palace Hotel until 20 April.