Zulkifle (Zul) Mahmod is a leading sound-media artist of Singapore. His work is searching, experimental and nuanced. The work No Substance, featured below, was the inaugural showcase of Teater Ekamatra’s new two-month artist residency program. It was also exhibited at the Art Stage Singapore Fair from January 22 – 25, 2015. Zul is kind enough to give Singapore Poetry an interview about his work in sound.
SP. Thanks, Zul, for agreeing to be interviewed. Your focus as an artist is on the medium of sound. You have worked with all kinds of sound, the enchanting tinkle of laboratory glassware in No Substance (2014), industrial sawing, thrumming and drilling in Sonically Exposed (2014), hoots and whistles of what sound like electronic instruments on board an aircraft in False Securities (2009), and ambient noise recorded in different cities in the series titled Sonic Encounter. The sounds are very different, so what draws you to work with them? Is it different in each case, or do they share anything in common?
ZM. Yes, each one of them is different because it depends on the concept and ideas of the work. For my latest work, No Substance, I’m drawn to the physicality and materials of the objects to create sound. It is also a bit more sculptural. As I was trained as a sculptor, I feel the training is coming back to me again.
The one thing that all of them share in common is the process behind them. I usually pen down my ideas in my sketchbook, followed by small drawings on paper before proceeding to the actual work. My drawings are always very colourful and expressive compared to the final work, which is very monochrome.
SP. Your sound works seem to be deeply related to space. For instance, the series Sonic Encounter takes place in different kinds of spaces, the barn-like hall of Sculpture Square in Singapore, what looks like an abandoned factory in Moscow, a white cube in Suzhou, and a room with ceiling molding in an abandoned house in Bangkok. In a conversation with Teater Ekamatra Artistic Director Fared Jainal, you spoke about how sound provides “an architecture of space.” What is your interest in the relation between sound and space? In your work, does sound determine space or is it the other way?
ZM. I am always fascinated by spaces when presenting my work. Most of my works are site-specific. There is a dialogue between my work and the space. Each space has its own characteristics, acoustic, historical, etc.. I feel in my work, it can work both ways. The sound can determine the space and the space can determine the work. For example, in Sonic Encounters, the work is different in each space because of the characteristics of the spaces.
SP. You were the first sound artist to represent Singapore at the 2007 Venice Biennale, with the work Sonic Dome: An Empire of Thought. The write-up reads, in part: “It is difficult to ignore the implicit references to more contemporary forms of ‘imperialism’ occurring in present day contexts when examining the artist’s larger body of work. Earlier works have addressed new forms of urban migration and the expanding empires of technology. The artist has challenged the notion of ‘freedoms’ pledged through increasingly ‘borderless’ interactions – preferring to view such freedoms as ‘fictions’ along with the myths of free speech and the free market in light of the corresponding growth of systems of surveillance and control.” Could you expand on how your works challenge the myths of free speech and the free market? A number of your works, for instance, Dancing with Frequencies, Singapore (2008) and Sonically Exposed (2014), register the presence of humans by changing sound. Do these works mimic or subvert “systems of surveillance and control”?
ZM. Sonic Dome: An Empire of Thought basically creates the empire through the mind as it listens to the soundscape created. The mind is so powerful when the imagination is freed. When I created the soundscape for Sonic Dome, I broke all the boundaries and restrictions, and so challenged the myths of free speech and free market.
Yes, I think, to a certain extent, my work attempts to subvert “systems of surveillance and control”. The interaction between the audience and the work is important for these works—Dancing with Frequencies and Sonically Exposed—because it creates tension and also expands the vocabulary of the sound.
SP. You decide in your works to pare away the visual in order to focus on the aural, choosing to light up sound, as lasers in Dancing with Frequencies, as street lamps in Sonic Encounter, and as halogen lights in No Substance. Is there a religious impulse in your work?
ZM. Not that I’m aware of. I don’t think so. It’s interesting that you brought this up. Maybe something for me to think about.
Photo by Belle (Amrita Performing Arts, Cambodia)
Zulkifle Mahmod (b. 1975) is at the forefront of a generation of sound-media artists in Singapore’s contemporary art development. Zul is one of the participants for the 52nd Venice Biennale in Italy for the Singapore Pavillion in 2007 along with three other artists. An Associate Artist at the alternative art space The Substation, Zul’s practice signals a more encompassing and expanded visual arts sensory experience. Zul is the designer for the Singtel F1 Grand Prix Night Race trophy in Singapore.
Adopting a multi-disciplinary/multi-genre approach, that also include drawings, prints, sculptures and ready-mades, Zul has exhibited in Singapore, Thailand, Germany, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Moscow, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Norway and Finland. His “Stilt” series forms part of The Swissotel Stamford Singapore’s permanent art collection. His notable initiatives include an industrial-sound inspired soundtrack in conjunction with an Antoni Tapies exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum and the first 24hr sound art festival, ‘Una Voce, 2005’ at The Substation.