Tarek Atoui’s (b. 1980, Beirut) work inhabits the intersection of visual and sound arts. Known for his sonic installations and performances, Atoui privileges a sensory approach along with an investigative process that embraces history, anthropology, ethnology and musicology. He considers sound to be a catalyst for human interaction leading him to collaborate with other musicians, as well as researchers and musical instrument makers.

The exhibition Waters’ Witness, presented in Mudam Grand Hall and the Park Dräi Eechelen, is based on the ongoing project I/E Atoui initiated in 2015. Drawing upon research made in collaboration with the musicians and composers Chris Watson and Eric La Casa, Atoui uses sound recordings to document the human, ecological, historical and industrial realities of coastal cities that have a past rooted in their docklands, such as Athens, Abu Dhabi, Singapore, Beirut and Porto. Working in close proximity to or under the water, Atoui uses various recording techniques to capture the sounds of the sea and docks, and materials such as metal, stone and wood.

The first iteration of Waters’ Witness, which took place at the Fridericianum in Kassel in 2020, saw the first two I/E harbours (Athens, 2015 and Abu Dhabi, 2017) merge in an exhibition for the first time. In Athens, the sounds he captured seemed ‘hazy, as if wrapped in cotton’. In contrast, the port of Abu Dhabi, filled with construction materials, steel and pipes, delivered ‘bright, sharp and clear sounds’. These two atmospheres were perceptible within the installation via the materials collected in these port cities, now on view at Mudam. The marble blocks from Athens and steel beams from Abu Dhabi are treated as landscape features, but also serve as elements capable of physically transmitting sound that visitors are invited to interact with through touch.

Another integral part of the artist’s practice is the making of instruments, in close collaboration with composers and artisans. Some are included in the composition conceived for this exhibition. For instance, The Rotator (2019) is based on the principle of magnetism, and is capable of animating other instruments through sonic-electric chain reactions. The Litophone (2014), presented under a glass dome, is made of volcanic stone that is played by the rubbing of a smaller stone on its surface.

For the second iteration of the project presented at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in 2022, Atoui designed a set of wooden containers for plant compost, also included in the installation at Mudam. These are inspired by the environment of Leixões, in Porto, where the artist observed piles of materials and industrial waste awaiting export. The composition thus integrates the residual and random sounds generated by the organic matter in real time, in constant transformation over the duration of the exhibition.

Additional elements produced by Mudam have expanded and enriched the ongoing production of the project, mainly in the form of new marble sculptures. These were made by Lebanese craftsmen and sold in shops nearby Beirut’s harbour when the explosion of 4 August 2020 occurred. Their presence is a physical trace of something that no longer exists. The sculptures were recently used in Beirut in a series of performances organised by the Beirut-based non-profit organisation Ashkal Alwan and Atoui with a group of students from the Orphan Welfare Society in Saida (Lebanon), as well as Eric La Casa and drummer Akram Hajj.

Atoui is sensitive to oral traditions, notably those present in Arab cultures, which explains his ‘refusal to commit works to record: first, so that ideas do not become individual property but belong to the collective; second, so that things have the ability to change and adapt to their time and place, even migrate from one civilisation to another’. With Waters’ Witness Atoui composes a soundscape that connects geographically and symbolically distinct realities. He thus creates space and time for new encounters, new exchanges and above all new immaterial connections, just like a port city that, by definition, lies between several influences and is a measure of a city’s growth and change.