Every minute and every second, the human brain processes a wealth of information that is much more complex than we could imagine. What we see, hear, touch and smell contributes to how we perceive things, and our brain makes rapid-fire judgements to decide which aspects become more important. This explains why we tend to remember certain things, yet forget others in an overstimulating environment.
For sound and visual artist Zimoun, going back to basics proved a winning formula: “In my work, what you hear is what you see, and what you see is what you hear.” Born in Bern, Switzerland, Zimoun has been interested in the beauty of sound for as long as he can remember. Since his early childhood, music and visual experiments have intrigued him – this might explain why commonplace items like paper bags, cardboard boxes, wooden sticks, steel washers and DC motors become the stars of his art installations. Zimoun’s distinctly lo-fi, analogue approach allows these everyday, often-overlooked materials to shine; through continuous motion, every whir, clunk and rustle becomes amplified hundredfold, resulting in a symphony of sounds that is simultaneously raw, real and rapturous.
“I often feel more like an observer and discoverer of things, rather than their inventor,” shares Zimoun. From the birth of an idea, all the way to the process of realisation, each step is inseparably linked, made possible through countless experiments and try-outs. Instead of staking claim upon the creation of his unique soundscapes, Zimoun points out that they were already there to begin with – all he did was to discover them.
“From a purely musical perspective, I am interested in sound spaces. A kind of state or extended moment in which developments from A to B do not actually take place, but rather, the pure existence of an organism or a system. Sound spaces seem rather static, but produce a great liveliness and variety in their microstructures and microtonal textures,” the self-taught artist explains.
THERE IS ORDER IN CHAOS
Zimoun’s unique method of naming his works often follows the sequence of listing the materials used, one after another. In the title, the mechanism used also makes an appearance, indicating its connection with how the sound is made. Presented in minimalistic tones without any additional embellishments or colour, the overall outcome is a true sight to behold. Simple, yet complicated. Beautiful, yet hauntingly so. For the sound piece titled “317 prepared dc-motors, paper bags, shipping container, 2016”, hundreds of brown paper bags in a nondescript shipping container are inflated and deflated in unison, making a rustling sound that is reminiscent of raindrops on leaves in the middle of a forest.
Having exhibited his installations in cities like Zurich, Chile, Madrid, Mumbai, Seoul, Taipei, Busan and Beijing, Zimoun’s compositions carry a sense of seamless, organic musicality. Instead of directing the mechanical systems, he chooses to merely activate the production of sound by turning the electricity supply on or off, allowing the materials’ interaction with their environment to do their magic. “If I had to describe my work in three words, it could be ‘space’, ‘material’, and ‘sound’. Or ‘systems’, ‘behaviour’, and ‘observation. Or even ‘simplicity’, ‘complexity’ and ‘perception’,” explains Zimoun. Instead of a single specific inspiration, his ideas are spurred on by an extensive coming-together of interests and fascinations, from a long chain of different approaches that could very well complement, contrast, or both.
Take this massive wall of boxes (“658 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 70x70x70cm, 2017”) at Le Centquatre, Paris, each with a cotton ball attached to a thin wire that rotates on its own axis. With each rotation, the cotton balls scrape and thud against the cardboard’s surface, creating a gentle echo that reverberates across the entire space.
“I try to create situations and conditions that encourage me to observe and reflect. Situations that activate me to think about the world, myself and the universe, to wonder and reflect. Opportunities to observe my perceptions as well as to make associations and connections to various themes and fields. The systems I create are a possible starting point, but also the principles and methods behind the creation. The systematic use of recycled materials, for example, opens up questions for me about our use of resources. Or by observing these systems, which are nourished and kept running by many individual elements, associations open up about the function of our society, the interests anchored in our systems and questions about them. At the same time, I often also experience a kind of meditative state when I devote myself to a work for a longer time. In such moments, questions about consciousness and perception arise,” elaborates Zimoun.
ONE MAN’S TRASH IS ANOTHER MAN’S TREASURE
By elevating the value of simple elements and transforming the way others perceive them, Zimoun’s vision for his sound installations and sculptures is as such: “For me, it works well when it can activate and stimulate me in a new way every time I encounter it – when dialogues arise, observations are made, and connections are forged.”
Like his work, Zimoun prefers not to limit himself when it comes to his musical choices. “I am interested in very different music, which is less likely to be pigeonholed within a specific genre. I surely have a penchant for minimalist concepts, but the field is relatively wide-ranging, from experimental electronics, drones and micromusic to minimal music and reduced techno, or partly concepts from contemporary jazz, post-rock or even classical or Arabic music. I am also interested in music that has a sculptural character and in a certain sense can be placed in space like a sculpture.”
“361 prepared dc-motors, filler wire 1.0mm, 2010” brings together a chorus of tinkling wires, which is as hypnotizing to watch as it is to listen to. This echoes much of Zimoun’s work, where raw materials are arranged in a geometrical, organised pattern. And yet, as soon as they are mechanically activated, this carefully prepared framework becomes uncontrolled as each element begins to move chaotically.
Just before the pandemic hit, Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre unveiled a year-long campaign called The Sound Maker to celebrate the brand’s history. Apart from launching new timepieces that highlighted the art of sound, they also revealed a brand-new sound sculpture designed by Zimoun. Taking seven months to create, “1944 prepared dc-motors, mdf panels 72x72cm, metal disks Ø 8cm, 2020” is an undulating piece of art, made out of close to 2,000 wafer-thin metal disks (Jaeger-LeCoultre watch components), each held by ultra-fine wires that connect to DC motors. These disks rotate against jet-black medium-density fibreboard panels, flickering as they swivel and spin in harmony – or is it chaos? As all the wires are bent by hand, each one is ever-so-slightly different, causing the metal disks to rotate at varying angles and speeds, like waves on the surface of a shimmering lake.
TO CREATE IS TO REFLECT
Although he says he is lucky that his work was able to establish itself quickly, Zimoun does not deny the effect of the pandemic on the future of art and self-expression. “Until today, I have never had a greater crisis of meaning in my work. This has allowed me to be quite active and productive. But with the outbreak, I became aware the despite the gratifying success, the whole thing is also on shaky ground. Most of my activities relate to exhibitions in museums and art halls. Within a few weeks, most of them were cancelled or postponed indefinitely. This unexpected situation was and still is a challenge, but in turn, has brought interesting potential for new approaches too.”
However, he ponders over how the fabric of society will be different because of these unforseen changes in the way we live: “After this intense manifestation that everything ‘evil’ comes from outside, suddenly everything seems to be a potential danger. This starts with meeting fewer people, and goes so far that countries have closed their borders. Nationalism, exclusion and marginalisation suddenly get a boost from new directions. Everyone is looking out for themselves first, and the gap between the rich and poor continues to grow. How will this affect us in the long term? Which systems do we actually want to preserve, and why?”
Zimoun’s sound sculptures and installations might not be the direct solutions to these pressing issues, but they possess the ability to spark change. Despite the use of “very primitive and simple methods”, he tries to develop systems that produce great complexity to invite conversations and evoke new ways of thinking.
Does life imitate art, or is it the other way around? Regardless, their interconnection weaves itself around us, allowing us to see the outside world in a new light. For Zimoun, the most beautiful sound is silence, even if he has never been able to fully experience it. But what makes him look ahead is that the existence of sound gives him a platform to observe, investigate, wonder and reflect.