Transforming M HKA Antwerp's IN SITU space into a megaphone that captures sounds – imagined or real – flowing from the city to the museum
Cevdet Erek’s typographical, sculptural exhibition ‘AAAAA’, at Antwerp’s Museum of Contemporary Art (M HKA), shows that he knows the city well. Six large letter As fill the walls of the triangular IN SITU space, in which the museum showcases international emerging and mid-career artists. Running from floor to ceiling, the black graphics accentuate the gallery’s vastness. The walls converge on a window that faces the street, beyond which lies the Scheldt river and its soundscape of seagulls and foghorns.
Street furniture – meticulously replicated posts, barriers and traffic signs – dots the exhibition space, its layout mirroring that of the original scene, which is visible through the window. You inevitably question the layout of the originals: it is tempting to test for equivalence, to measure your paces against those of the people walking outside. Erek has forged two identical vans out of steel, placing one outside and one in – the oxidization visible on the former accentuates the different atmospheric conditions. To some, the alien, tank-like units may be reminiscent of the military vehicles that appeared in Belgian streets in the wake of the 2016 Brussels bombings.
The proportions of Erek’s typographic murals are drawn from those of the facades of six buildings in the city – an exhibition handout details the locations of each. In graphic terms, ‘AAAAA’ evokes the onomatopoeic devices used in comic books to signal surprise, anger, disappointment or relief. With this in mind, we could read the space as a kind of funnel, or megaphone, or hearing trumpet, one that captures and amplifies the sounds – whether imagined or real – that flow from the city to the museum.
The letter A has, in recent decades, become a shorthand for Antwerp’s identity. In 2002, a giant, bright red version of the letter was planted on top of the Boerentoren (the city’s art deco answer to the Manhattan skyline). It is a symbol-cum-phrase that, in the Antwerp dialect, can denote ‘you’ or ‘yours’. The city exploits this in its marketing campaigns: slogans like ‘‘t Stad is van A’ (The city is yours) are printed on posters and presented in metal frames on its streets. Erek’s installation includes a neat copy of one such frame, just like the ‘real’ one that stands outside the museum and contains a map. His version presents a black-on-white floorplan that replicates the funnel-shape of the IN SITU space, but it also mirrors this shape outwards, catching the street furniture in its beam and drawing it back into the gallery. On the map’s reverse-side, the same plan is repeated in negative. It reads like a visual score, one performed by happenstance as much as listening.
With ‘AAAAA’, Erek brings the city into the museum and, at the same time, projects the museum back into the city. In other words, the exhibition is like a blueprint for an open system. It relates to James Turrell piece on the museum’s rooftop, Skyspace (1994), with its rectangular aperture to the sky, and harks back to Gordon Matta-Clark’s now-legendary Office Baroque project (1977), for which he cut open a derelict building with a series of gracious curves. (Matta-Clark’s work was sadly demolished in favour of redevelopment, but the ensuing outcry from the artistic community increased the impetus to found M HKA.) ‘AAAAA’ accentuates porosity and listening, and it comes at a crucial time for the museum, as it contemplates moving to a yet-to-be conceived building, one that will be dependent on negotiations with city legislations, developers and governments alike. ‘AAAAA’ is a hopeful projection, a prefiguration of a kind of hearing aid, in the shape of a listening institution, in a listening city.
Cevdet Erek: 'AAAAA' runs at IN SITU, Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp until 29 April.
Main image: Cevdet Erek, 'AAAAA', 2018, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp. Courtesy: the artist and M HKA
Kate Christina Mayne is a writer and artist based in Antwerp, Belgium. Her outlook benefits from the privilege of having worked as a writer, editor and translator alongside other artists and institutions for over twenty years, in the UK, the US and Continental Europe.