190515 John Varghese
31 Prepared DC-Motors, 31 m Rope, Wooden Sticks 19 cm, Cardboard Boxes 10x10x10 cm Image Credit: John Varghese

Architectural installations made from cardboard boxes is a well-recognised signature of ZimounSwiss artist Zimoun is well-known for his unique practice that combines elements of engineering, music, sound, sculpture and kinetics to create immersive audio-visual installations. Using simple materials like analogue DC-motors to drive the movement of objects such as wooden sticks, cardboard boxes, cotton balls and foil, he skillfully orchestrates visual soundscapes that evoke both the urban and natural environment. His grid-based repetitive arrangements reflect urban architecture but the sounds they produce recall sounds from nature such as rain, thunderstorms, babbling brooks, flowing rivers, buzzing bees, or chirping crickets.

“I explore simple systems that involve various complexities in sound and motion. Through primitive mechanical systems I look to activate simple and ‘unspectacular’ materials which then start to develop a complex behaviour. The sounds my installations produce are generated immediately through the activation of the materials themselves. In fact, I like to refer to my work as ‘primitive complexities’,” Zimoun says.

The artist who lives in Bern is presenting his first exhibition in this region at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Titled Zimoun, the show features five immersive audio-visual installations. These include unique site-specific adaptations of earlier works and a new large-scale commission that is spread across an entire room.

The artist avoids offering viewers a fixed narrative for interpreting his installations by giving them titles that simply list the materials he has used. The first work visitors encounter in the show is ‘37 Prepared DC-Motors, 85m Rope, Steel Washers 40mm’ — a wall piece featuring dancing strings with washers at one end that strike a metal base to produce sound. The next work, installed in a long corridor features a row of motorised wooden sticks beating on the wall, each with its own rhythm enabling visitors to quite literally experience ‘movements’ in a musical composition as they walk past.

Architectural installations made from cardboard boxes is a well-recognised signature of Zimoun. For this show he has created his tallest ever installation — a 10-metre high circular tower made from cardboard boxes stacked like bricks. A deep rumbling sound emanates from the tower, getting louder and more complex as you enter the structure. The sound is created by tiny cotton balls banging on the boxes. Each cotton ball makes a different sound because of the varying length of string attached to it, but together they create the effect of a thunderstorm. In another installation the artist has used tiny cardboard boxes with small wooden sticks moving inside them to create a different sound.

190515 architectural
Architectural installations made from cardboard boxes is a well-recognised signature of Zimoun Image Credit: Supplied

Zimoun’s major new commission for this show features rows and rows of black wooden sticks suspended from the ceiling with ropes, filling up the entire central area of the gallery. 510 dc-motors have been used to make the sticks in this 20-metre deep installation dance on the wooden floor creating a mesmerising audio-visual experience for viewers. Like all Zimoun’s works, at first the look, feel and sound of this work recalls the architecture and the hustle and bustle of the urban environment, but then gradually transforms into the experience of being in nature surrounded by the relaxing sound of rain or chirping crickets.

“While I was in Abu Dhabi to install the show, I spent a weekend in the desert and was struck by its quality of silence. When it is that silent, it changes how we listen. That kind of listening, as if listening to silence, is in fact what my own work is about, although the installations make sound,” Zimoun says.

He likes to take everyday objects and turn them into musical instruments, and in many ways his sculptures are also instruments.

- Maya Allison, curator

The show is curated by Maya Allison, executive director of the NYUAD Art Gallery and chief curator at NYU Abu Dhabi. Allison recognised Zimoun’s potential early in his career and included him in a group show she curated at Brown University a decade ago.

“Zimoun’s practice is an unusual combination of sound composition, sculpture and installation. I have been following his work for over a decade and have seen him constantly evolving and innovating. He has had major exhibitions around the globe, and we are happy to host his first show in this region,” Allison says.

“Watching Zimoun and his team installing this massive exhibition over a two-week period alongside student interns and local artist assistants energised me and deepened my understanding of the architectural and sonic qualities of his work. He has said that he thinks of his work as ‘audible buildings’ that we can explore as much with our ears as with our eyes, and this show invites us all to consider our future buildings, and the soundscapes we inhabit in daily life,” she adds

190515 prepared dc motors
192 Prepared DC-Motors, Wooden Sticks 2.4 m Image Credit: Supplied

Zimoun is an artist and a musician who has always been interested in making objects and sounds. One of his prize objects is a piano that he took apart and altered to play his unique compositions. He is also the co-founder of a record label project, Leerraum (empty space) which produces experimental music projects on CD, DVD, print and sound objects with international artists and designers.

“He likes to take everyday objects and turn them into musical instruments, and in many ways his sculptures are also instruments. His work has a polyrhythmic structure, so each individual piece has a rhythm but when they are all put together the rhythms combine to create sounds that you only hear in nature. His work unifies the audio and visual elements so what you are seeing is what you are hearing, but it evokes memories of what you are not seeing. He does not try to make sounds of nature, but he allows us to enter a space where we are listening differently with our ears more open like we do in nature. The materials he uses and the grid structure of his work reference urban architecture, but the sounds are like that of nature and this tension is very beautiful. His work takes you from the order of the grid to the chaos and complexity beyond,” Allison says.

As a curator at an academic institution, Allison always chooses shows that work as teaching exhibitions. She is pleased that Zimoun’s work is already being taught at the university and that students from various departments got the opportunity to assist and watch Zimoun and his team install the show.

190515 510 prepared dc motors
510 Prepared DC-Motors, 2142 m Rope, Wooden Sticks 20 cm Image Credit: John Varghese

“Students from the departments of interactive media, music, sculpture and engineering worked closely with Zimoun’s team and they saw how everything was precisely planned and executed, how every single string had to be tied to every motor, cotton ball and stick. Since the exhibition opened, we have had students from various departments including art history, sound design and theatre coming in for tours and discussions. Zimoun does not use computers and it is good for our students to get out of that programming mindset and focus on the materials, their interaction with each other and their aesthetic effect,” Allison says.

In the gallery’s reading room, visitors can watch a video compilation of all Zimoun’s major works and exhibitions. A bookshelf with books on subjects ranging from minimalism, consciousness, and mechanics to sculpture, music, astronomy and swarm behaviour offers deeper insights into Zimoun’s practice. The gallery has also commissioned the first book-length publication on Zimoun, edited by the artist and Allison, with essays by international scholars and curators. The public programme includes family tours every Saturday with a specially developed kit to help children create their own Zimoun inspired works.

Jyoti Kalsi is an arts-enthusiast based in Dubai.

Zimoun will run at NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery, Saadiyat Island until June 1.