Shapes from Maine, 2009. Installation view.

A Conversation with Zimoun: With and Between Contradictions

Zimoun combines ordinary objects (including cardboard boxes, plastic bags, and old furniture) with mechanical components (such as dc-motors, wires, microphones, speakers, and ventilators) to create extraordinary hybrid sculptures that fuse the normative order of generative systems with the disorder of random events. When a visitor enters the space, sensors engage small motors that introduce movement and whirring sounds. The precise mechanics immediately bring to mind the watches and clocks of the artist’s native Switzerland, but Zimoun’s works are very different. Once running, these quasi-autonomous creations play out complex patterns of behavior in which deviation and individuality balance determinism and repetition. A self-taught artist from Bern, the Swiss capital, Zimoun has exhibited widely. His work has been shown at Art Basel, the Nam June Paik Art Center in Korea, the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts in Taiwan, and the Contemporary Art Museum MNAC in Bucharest, as well as in New York, Liechtenstein, and Ljubljana. His recent exhibition in Sarasota, Florida, marked a departure for the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, an institution usually associated with Baroque painting, especially Rubens.

Ann Albritton: When did you first begin working with mechanical sculpture and sound?

Zimoun: I was always interested in exploring sound, making music, playing instruments, and composing, as well as in visual practices like painting, photography, and experiments with old copy machines. Even as a kid, I was fascinated and intrigued by the fields of sound, music, and visual art. Later on, I started to search for ways to combine these things. I had a band and wrote music. Those compositions were already about creating space, about creating an acoustic architecture. My compositions were (and still are) less focused on getting from A to B than in creating static sound architectures, which can be entered and explored acoustically like a building. The focus lies on an altercation between issues such as void, density, space, structure, interfacing, statics, and balance. Then, I started to do multi-channel compositions on my computer, based on noises that I recorded and manipulated. For instance, I used the sound of paper as a base to create compositions that explored its dimensions. The next question was how to create these sounds in the space itself, without recording them first and playing the composition back over speakers. I wanted to generate those material-based sounds in real time and physically in the space.

AA: Is your work a critique or a rethinking of Minimalism?

Z: I don’t think of it as a critique. Minimalist art developed elements and attitudes that are important in my work, too.

AA: At the Ringling, there were three works made of cardboard boxes that make different sounds and movements. One might think they would work in the same manner, but they don’t. They form patterns, as do the shadows. But first tell me about the sound.

Z: One piece is based on 236 units that repeat the same elements: the same size of cardboard box, the same size and type of motor, the same lengths of wires, and the same voltages and power. In theory, they should all act in the same way. But since the wires are bent on the roll and we hand-cut them, they have different shapes, and they look a little different. Each wire is connected to one motor, and all of the motors get the same power, but since the wires have different shapes, this means different work for the motors. For some, it’s easier to turn; and for others, there is more work. So, the shape of the wire changes the speed of the motor. It’s like a chain reaction, only based on the materials themselves, creating this organic material, bringing out the individuality of each element and of each motor.

AA: Of the two other cardboard installations, one is a standing wall structure and the other a flat, table-like structure. Boxes carry a lot of meanings. They are collapsible, portable. There is architecture, everydayness, beauty.

Z: The size of the box makes a difference, too, in relation to the sounds. Using larger boxes creates deeper sounds since there’s a larger body for resonance. The generated sounds also change based on exactly where the motors are fixed on the boxes. On the wall piece, cotton balls knock at the boxes. They are connected to the motors by filler wires and hang in front of the boxes, moving like pendulums. Since the filler wires have different lengths and shapes, the cotton balls move and knock at different speeds. In total, it’s a wall structure based on 80 large boxes, each one of them generating an individual knocking pulse. Together, all of these pulses create a never repeating, but static and complex sound structure, which feels very organic. Active listeners will hear many different layers in the sound structure—dull knocking pulses, tiny, higher pitched scratching sounds, and a deep drone that feels like a sound from far away. In the floor piece, each motor is in a flat position, again connected to a cotton ball over a straight piece of filler wire. The balls here don’t swing like pendulums; instead, they vibrate quite rapidly on the upper surface of the cardboard boxes. Through very small differences in the length of the wires, as well as in the hand-prepared motors, each mechanism produces its own behavior. And each mechanism is placed on a different spot on the upper surface of the cardboard, which also influences the sound. In both of these pieces, you hear not only the sound of the materials, but also the sound of the space (the space as resonant body) itself. In this way, each space is supporting the piece in an individual way.

AA: With the wall piece, and especially with the floor piece, percussion comes to mind. Do you think about drumming, or is that just an outcome?

Z: It’s not specifically about drumming. But, of course, if I’m standing in front of the piece, I’m also creating associations and connections to drumming—along with many other associations. I hope that the works inspire viewers to make their own individual connections and thoughts. There’s no one right way to look at it.

AA: What about political associations?

Z: I think the interesting question is why and how someone creates a specific thematic connection while standing in front of a piece, why and how people take a specific direction and what kind of idea they start to generate out of it. This can be politics too, I guess, depending on the person. For me, there are many aspects that move in very different directions. To give viewers this freedom, I keep the titles very abstract, based on descriptions of the materials—like 150 prepared dc-motors, filler wire 1.0mm. If this work were called A Rainy Sunday Morning, the title would affect the way you look at it, and it would reduce your creative possibilities.

AA: The tall wire pieces are quite different from the cardboard pieces. They all play on the idea of music, of being Swiss, but there is something organic about them, something about nature, an idea of water plus the mechanical.

Z: I see my work as playing with and between contradictions. For instance, the artificial systems behave somehow organically. There is precision on the one hand, but on the other, it’s all handmade and somehow imprecise, not like something produced by a machine. Then there’s the simplicity of the systems, mechanics, and ideas, which generates complexity based on the sounds and motions. A loop (since the motors are just rotating) gives rise to never-really-repeating sound structures. Another contradiction is between mass and individuality—there are hundreds of the same motors, but they become individuals when they act. Some seem to be lazy, others very busy, and some behave strangely.

121 prepared dc-motors, cardboard elements 8x8cm (detail), 2011. Motors, cardboard, power supply, steel, and MDF, 35.4 x 35.4 x 11.8 in.

AA: Perhaps the primary contradiction is that, in these works, the handmade looks purely mechanical.

Z: People sometimes ask me where I buy the mechanisms. They often don’t realize at first that all of these elements are based on many, much smaller single components, all of them put together in the studio by hand over the course of weeks.

AA: This is an important aspect of your work. Do people not realize the interplay?

Z: Maybe not as a first thought. But later, often yes. Even the cardboard itself—a straight cube—is all taped by hand. It’s a cheap, flabby material, so the result is not really precise, it’s play between the things.

AA: Are there other things that you would like people to understand? Contemporary art isn’t always easy, but your work is approachable.

Z: The pieces are simple. You don’t need to read a book first to get something out of them. They work intuitively even if they’re conceptual. But maybe you’re reading a book about quantum mechanics, for instance, or about the evolution of insects, robotics, or forms generated by natural or social phenomena. When you see my work, you probably start to build some connections and maybe even some interesting thoughts related to this specific theme you are into at the moment. There’s humor, irony, and absurdity in my work, but I don’t create for laughs. The work often makes people smile—but in a quiet way, since the humor is somehow hidden. It’s more about the wonder in things and situations that make you smile. The same goes for kids. It’s not work made for kids, though they can connect to it. Even cats would probably like it. The pieces are almost primitive in a way, but they open a wide field of potential connections on different intellectual levels. I see them more like a kind of abstract code, which can be found behind very different things.

AA: You need the viewer.

Z: It’s similar to a painting of an abstract landscape. Viewers play an important part, finishing the landscape in their own minds or enjoying it as a pure abstract and graphic line. What the viewer chooses to do with it shows a lot about the viewer. In the end, like every discussion about art, subjectivity becomes something interesting.

AA: I saw the word “chaos” used in relation to your work, but I don’t think that what you make is chaotic. It’s not disturbing, but beautiful.

Z: That depends on the nature of chaos. I don’t see it as something destructive. I understand it as connected to randomness or chance in relation to unpredictable forms in sound and motion. I don’t think of chaos and order as two different things. It’s probably something about cognition. The sound generated by this installation feels somehow chaotic and very alive, somehow organic in its micro-structures, like micro-structures of the sound of rain, for instance.

Ann Albritton is a writer and art historian based in Sarasota.