Exhibition view of “ZUL: Sonically Exposed,” with 50 vibrating sound objects using DC motors and batteries in the foreground. On view at The Private Museum, Singapore, 2013. Courtesy The Private Museum, Singapore.

Sonically Exposed


The Private Museum

ZUL#072 from the “Sonically Exposed” series, 2013, plastic container, newspaper collage, speaker and knobs, 65 × 55 × 55 cm. Courtesy The Private Museum, Singapore.

ZUL#014 from the “Sonically Exposed” series, 2013, wire, photoresistors, piezo discs, capacitors, resistors, integrated circuit, wood and potentiometer, 65 × 55 × 55 cm. Courtesy The Private Museum, Singapore.

ZUL#020 from the “Sonically Exposed” series, 2013, wire, photoresistors, piezo discs, capacitors, resistors, integrated circuit, wood and potentiometer, 155 × 110 cm. Courtesy The Private Museum, Singapore.

Noise disturbs. Its fluctuations blur focus and confuse meaning. “ZUL: Sonically Exposed,” an exhibition of sound-sculpture,  confounds these notions. Experiencing Singaporean sound artist Zulkifle Mahmod’s sonic works at The Private Museum is rather like negotiating the rabid chatter of a cocktail party, each sculpture possessing its own self-absorbed charisma, emitting emphatic bursts of atonal dialogue.

Formally trained as a sculptor, Mahmod (aka ZUL), began creating multi-disciplinary sound works some eight years ago. His inscrutably convoluted Rube Goldberg-type devices are designed to carry out the basic task of producing “noise”:  their clicks, hums and wailing glissandos are intense and pure. In this show, voluble sculptures included nine wall-mounted reliefs, several standing works, four “sound boxes” and a sonic menagerie of 50 or so small, irrepressible gadgets. ZUL has designed every methodically numbered piece to produce an individual “language” that might range from high-pitched squeals to indistinct drones.

Each composition of the “Sonically Exposed” series (all dated 2013) involves a precise labyrinth of soldered wires studded with tiny jewel-like capacitors, exquisite golden piezo discs, flat photo-resistors and toggles that invite viewers to articulate volume and modulation. Shadows cast by visitors interrupt frequencies, producing oscillations that provoke piercing shrieks or pulsations. This interaction recalls the theremin, an early electronic instrument wherein the relative position of the player’s hands creates eerie tonal shifts.

Most of ZUL’s wall reliefs have been conceived with geometric precision, and resemble the murmuring detritus of an eviscerated radio, mounted on painted wood boards. Others verge on the ornamental: the nerve-shattering dentist-drill whine of sound relief #009 is belied by its decorous, rather demure wire circlets. The artist’s four delicate standing forms have a more organic sensibility, suggested by wiry leaves or wing-like antennae. All of these intricate electric instruments are chatty, but inert; however, ZUL has bestowed mobility on a battery-driven collection of compact tchotchkes. These toy-like mechanisms, titled #022 to #071, generate humming vibrations that send them skittering across an expansive table—da Vinci sketches come to life as an eccentric gaggle of automatons, flying machines and fanciful winged creatures.

Whatever their form, ZUL’s works emit quirky mechanical noises whose occasional leaps in timbre or tone—varying from repetitive beeps to ambiguous vocalizations—can be unnerving. We want to intuit significance from these inflections and the ear gladly invents patterns and expressions from what may be only babel.

In four intriguing precursors to the open-circuitry works, ZUL reconfigures four “found” boxes numbered from #072 to #075, and endows each with a distinct vocabulary of sounds, manipulated via simple knobs. These sound boxes play what might be perceived as abstract bytes of aural recollection (throbbing motors, voices, birdcall) that then segue into subtle incoherence. Like all of ZUL’s “noise,” these works suggest an ambient memory—a gasp, an echo, a party—that we strain to recapture and define.

ZUL: Sonically Exposed is on view at The Private Museum through March 9, 2014.

Marybeth Stock is a writer, researcher and editor based in Singapore and Japan.