Installation view of Zarouhie Abdalian / MATRIX 249, on view at the UC Berkeley Art Museum August 2 through September 29.
Photo: Sibila Savage.

Although you might not guess it right away, Zarhouie Abdalian’s spare, enigmatic audio-visual sculptural installation at the Berkeley Art Museum has deep roots here. The Free Speech Movement was born at UC Berkeley in the 1960s, after all, and Abdalian’s elegant, cryptogrammatic forms, once they’re deciphered, add up poetically to a complex meditation on suppression of free speech and its implications for democracy.

Unlike overtly political art, Abdalian’s conceptual, minimalist ensemble acts upon the visitor stealthily, like a three-dimensional rebus. Its play between silence and sound, the visible and the invisible, demands imaginative leaps. The effort pays off with expanding reverberations of allusion and meaning.

Three unlabeled pieces inhabit the trapezoidal gallery space, each in dialog with the others. Mounted on a concrete wall, Ad libitum (2013) is so subtle it’s easy to miss. A length of instrument wire is punctuated by bone bridge saddles at intervals that indicate the pitches in Pete Seeger’s civil rights song If I Had a Hammer, the inspiration for this project. Its title is an invitation to improvise on that composition.

Ad libitum (If I Had a Hammer), 2013; By Zarhouie Abdalian; bone, brass, wire, and tuner. Photo: Sibila Savage.

As a demonstration (2013), is an electric alarm bell encased in a clear Plexiglass vacuum chamber, mounted on a meticulously machined steel pedestal, monitored by a pressure gauge, and activated by a hidden mechanism. You can see the hammer striking the gong at regular intervals, but the continuous ringing it produces inside its airless container is inaudible. Can a silenced alarm give you a wake-up call?

As a demonstration, 2013; By Zarouhie Abdalian; acrylic vacuum chamber, electric bell, and steel; Photo: Sibila Savage.

Each envelope as before (2013), harbors hidden hammers knocking against the sides of their dark enclosure, a Shaker-style vitrine of opaque black Plexiglass on steel legs. The insistent rhythm of their taps matches the rhythm of the unheard metronomic hammer strikes in the bell piece. The effect is of a ticking time bomb: an inexorable countdown to some unknown ominous event. Revolution, maybe?

Each envelope as before, 2013. By Zarouhie Abdalian. Acrylic vitrine, electronics, and steel. Photo: Sibila Savage

The exhibition commemorates If I Had a Hammer, written and first performed in 1949 by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. “It’s the hammer of justice / It’s the bell of freedom,” goes the lyric.

If I Had a Hammer “was considered a dangerous song at the time — dangerous for what it supported: the progressive labor movement and freedom of expression during Senator Joe McCarthy’s chilling attempts to silence those with outspoken far-left opinions,” Matrix curator Apsara DiQuinzio wrote in an essay in the exhibition brochure.

“Seeger’s band, The Weavers, stopped playing the song in public after Seeger was assaulted at a Labor Day concert,” wrote DiQuinizo. [It] “was revived when Peter, Paul, and Mary released a recording in 1962, and it subsequently gained a wide following, recorded by everyone from Trini Lopez to Aretha Franklin. Since then it has become the anthem of the civil rights movement and, tellingly, the chosen song of WikiLeaks.”

By honoring Seeger’s song-as-rallying-cry with forms that demonstrate containment and control, enforced silence and incarcerated noise makers (clamors of protest and resistance?), Abdalian metaphorically illuminates the “danger” and the “warning” in its lyrics.

Her piece pays homage to iconic works of 20th Century conceptual art. DiQuinzio mentions John Cage’s 4’33” (1952) and Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube (1963-65) as inspirations.  I would add Marcel Duchamp’s With Hidden Noise (1916) and Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of Its Own Making (1961) as antecedents as well.

Conceptual artists, often considered apolitical, are possibly the most radical artists of all. They are after nothing less than a transformation of consciousness. Abdalian continues that tradition. Responding to a question about the political dimension of her work, she said “Art strikes me as a weak tool for effecting political change. On the other hand, I often want my work to initiate a kind of epistemological rift. A successful work might act a bit like a speed bump: it may not change your path, but it registers, and for a moment, you move differently. . . . I believe there is a value in subtle disruptions initiated by artworks. They have the ability to quietly suggest a changed or altered perspective.”

This September, Abdalian will present a potentially more disruptive series of speed bumps when she debuts a large-scale public art commission around Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. From September 14 to November 17, five brass bells hidden on rooftops around the Plaza will sound at random times once a day, audible to everyone in and near this public space. As a recipient of the 2013 SECA Award from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Abdalian was commissioned by SFMoMA to create this work; her Matrix installation is an outgrowth of that project.

The Plaza was the site of the Occupy movement in Oakland until its inhabitants were evacuated by the city. For people in that neighborhood this fall, will the bells ring out a warning and a danger? A call to use the space for further political gatherings? A memory of yet another aborted progressive political movement? Will it catalyze music, noise or silence?

Whatever the outcome, Abdalian’s MATRIX exhibition reveals her as an ambitious, original, passionately committed artist: one definitely to watch in that space and elsewhere.


Zarouhie Abdalian, Matrix 249, August 2 – September 29, 2013. University of California, Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

Would you like the latest Berkeley news sent to your email inbox once a day? Click here to subscribe to Berkeleyside’s free Daily Briefing.