Adventures in sound art and installation: Tarek Atoui’s ‘Whispered Pulses’ and Kate Newby’s ‘Feel Noise’

Two current exhibitions remind us that just as our lives are unpredictable, art is malleable. So roll with it.


The thing I like about installation is the not knowing. Not knowing exactly how to enter and navigate an environment — maybe proceeding with caution — can be bewildering, but also exciting, and at the very least amusing.

Visiting “Feel noise,” Kate Newby’s exhibition at Testsite reminded me of this.

Entering the 33rd Street house-gallery, I was instructed that there was one work inside and the rest of the exhibition would be outdoors. Skipping the singular indoor work for now, I moved along the east exterior of the building down its tidy gravel-and-paver path.

Passing over works flanking the path below me, I impatiently proceeded to the St. Augustine filled backyard, my eye diagonally crossing the grass to alight on a multi-colored vertical work mounted on a wooden fence. Brightly colored and curved ceramic tiles were stacked like columns, emphasizing repetition, and modularity from afar. On approach, each tile reveals itself as not an identical unit, but rather unique parts, each with varying effects from the process in which they were made.

Titled “Mia, Kate, Mackenzie, Veronica, Sara, Patrick, Rob, Kyle, Sarah” (2022) after the participants who took part in shaping the ceramic tiles on view, the artwork emphasizes the idea of shared labor though collaboration and community.

Photographing the work, its site-specificity can be appreciated as the work’s surroundings play an important role in framing it and enhancing our experience of it.

Kate Newby’s “Mia, Kate, Mackenzie, Veronica, Sara, Patrick, Rob, Kyle, Sarah” Photo by Erin Keever.
Detail Kate Newby’s “Feel noise” installation of glazed ceramic pieces pressed into empty flower beds. Photo by Erin Keever

Making my way back to the other activated portion of the yard, Newby’s installed cables made of twisted coconut fibers are interspersed with bronze casts of ropes, reminiscent of some vintage handmade tool or ancient excavation object. Titled “All I planted came up” (2022), the rope work’s linear axis almost parallels a backyard zipline left up, and draws attention to nearby telephone lines. It also launches a back and forth viewing exchange between intersecting lines overhead and those underfoot (in the landscape’s borders) . Simultaneously considering materials above, while traversing what’s below, requires balance and heightens the art viewer’s physical awareness.

Ready to re-visit art closer to the exhibition’s eastern entrance along that pathway, I check out more glazed ceramic installed in beds framed by limestone blocks. “Feel noise” (2022) is a series of works from which the exhibition takes its title. It consists of a ceramic mural split into four sections with glazed ceramic objects pressed into empty flower beds. Lining this portion of the backyard, the work bears the marks of the artist’s varied processes, made by smashing and flipping clay across concrete surfaces such as sidewalks, roads, and the artist’s studio floor. (Newby is an Auckland born artist living in Floresville, Texas.) The forms reveal textures from being bent, manipulated, modeled, and roughened. They are physically and forcibly handled repeatedly when fit and pressed into dirt beds.

Returning to where I started, the print “Wander Until You are Lost” (2022) hangs in its privileged position above the fireplace. Like the ceramic works Newby’s black and white monoprint made using the artist’s hair conveys bodily texture. Impressions of several delicate nests of hair imply a revolving movement, dancing in two concentric circles. Probably pulled from a brush or a comb, we reconsider the detritus of everyday lives, as what’s left is culled, elevated and enlivened.

The pandemic forced many artists and galleries to re-imagine exhibition space and forsake four walls for foreign terrain. Despite its title, Newby’s “Feel noise” features no built-in aural component or explicit sound focus. To find that, you might visit Tarek Atoui’s new outdoor installation at the Contemporary Austin’s Laguna Gloria site, which both creates sound and engages with its surroundings, so much though that it depends upon it.

Atoui is the winner of the 2022 Suzanne Deal Booth / FLAG Art Foundation Prize this year. He is a Lebanese-born artist now based in Paris, whose work explores sound as a medium. Since April a major exhibition of his artwork has taken up two stories of the Contemporary Austin’s downtown Jones Center.

Even sound art enthusiasts might find the Jones Center display a bit daunting. Some are likely to snub shared earphones during a transition phase from pandemic to endemic. Then there’s the sheer quantity of what’s on view. Between “The Whisperers,” spread across the first floor, and highlighting an ongoing project exploring sound as it relates to material, space, motion, and perception, and “The Wave” which fills the second floor with Atoui’s projects from the last decade, it’s a considerable amount of work all of which deserves considerable immersive effort.

Contemporary Austin
Tarek Atoui, “The Wave,” 2019. Installation view, “Tarek Atoui: The Whisperers,” The Contemporary Austin –Jones Center on Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas, 2022. Artwork © Tarek Atoui. Courtesy the artist; Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris; and Kurimanzutto, Mexico City / New York. Image courtesy The Contemporary Austin. Photograph by Brian Fitzsimmons.

Lastly, as objects, many works are visually less than inspiring, as they sit flat on the floor and requiring crouching or squatting in order to engage with them. (The work presumes your body is able to do so.) The Contemporary’s programs like the immersive performance featuring musicians-in-residence Henna Chou, Chris Cogburn, and Parham Daghighi were reasonably successful in assuaging these criticisms though.

By the time Atoui’s commissioned work “Whispered Pulses” was installed at the Contemporary’s Laguna Gloria location two months after the exhibition’s opening, I was eager to experience the sound-based installation in person. So, on a recent 100 degree-or-so June evening I made my way to the sculpture park only to be informed that recent rain (rain?!) had made Atoui’s sound work not entirely operable. The announcement was simply “it’s not working.”

On closer inspection, there were some faint sounds detectable and well, there are always ideas to be gleaned from any experience of art, right?

contemporary Austin
Tarek Atoui’s sound installation “Whispered Pulses” on the ground of the Contemporary Austin-Laguna Gloria. Photo by Erin Keever.

A sound art exhibition is a complicated process that involves considering vantage points and the physical positioning of the body of whoever interacts with it (and whether that body is physically able to interact). Atoui chose a hill underneath the little viewing platform just northwest of the museum’s historic villa as his site. The quiet spot is accentuated by a low Italianate balustrade drawing visitors to it. Amidst the wild vegetation, vines, and trees below you see nestled four cisterns (three rectangular, one round), equipped with microphones. Water is meant to drip down brass rods into water. Microphones pick up sound and route in though speakers in the trees.

The artist is especially interested in what happens to sound as it travels through materials like metal, wood, and water and are how we able to perceive sound by listening not just with our ears but with our eyes and bodies.  While due to technical issues, not much was emanating when I visited, I did detect a hollow whooshing sound punctuated by what sounded like the pluck of a stringed instrument. It was actually the sound of a water droplet amplified. This combined with the percussive cicada chorus rising up intermittently, left me wanting to experience Atoui’s work more — when it’s fully functioning.

Newby’s “Feel noise” leads us physically and visually relying on structures and routine actions in place while Atoui’s “Whispered Pulses” draws us in with the promise of sound and the potential for reflection. For both, siting is integral, and both seem to lean in and advise us, just as our lives are unpredictable, art is malleable, so roll with it.

“Feel noise: Solo Exhibition by Kate Newby,” a collaboration between Kate Newby and Mackenzie Stevens presented by Fluent~Collaborative & Testsite, is on view through Aug.t 21 at Testsite. There will be a public closing reception Aug. 21.

“Tarek Atoui: The Whisperers” is on view through Aug. 14 at the Contemporary Austin. It will travel to The FLAG Art Foundation, New York, where it will be on view Oct. 1-Dec.10. An exhibition catalog co-published by The Contemporary, FLAG, and Radius Books is forthcoming in 2023.

Erin Keever
Erin Keever
Erin Keever is an Adjunct Professor of Art History, freelance writer, art historian and art appraiser. She lives and works in Austin, and serves on the Sightlines board.

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