Zimoun: Silence that you hear

(l) 269 Prepared DC-Motors, Cotton Balls, Cardboard Boxes 60x60x60cm -  a 10 metre-high circular tower of cardboard boxes inside which cotton balls clatter and (r)     192 Prepared DC-Motors, Wooden Sticks 2.4 m  , is a wall-hanging of motorised wooden sticks. Photography John Varghese. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

(l) 269 Prepared DC-Motors, Cotton Balls, Cardboard Boxes 60x60x60cm - a 10 metre-high circular tower of cardboard boxes inside which cotton balls clatter and (r) 192 Prepared DC-Motors, Wooden Sticks 2.4 m, is a wall-hanging of motorised wooden sticks. Photography John Varghese. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

“Listen to this in the same way you would listen to silence,” explains Maya Allison, executive director and chief curator of the New York University Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. “It is supposed to wash over you in waves.”

Indeed, entering the survey exhibition from Swiss artist Zimoun is immersing yourself in a symphony of sound where the instruments are made from the most basic materials: wooden sticks, DC motors, rope, wire and cardboard boxes. And to really hear it, you must viscerally experience it and enter an almost meditative state. In this state, each layer of sound becomes apparent, yet at the same time remains elusive.

Searching for ways to describe the audio experience, the mind immediately goes to nature. It sounds like a thunderstorm, a rain shower pelting down on the roof of a car or like the ambient sounds of bird chatter, a stream trickling or better, standing inside a tropical jungle.

What Zimoun’s work does force you to do is fine tune your listening organs. The artist, who lives and works in Bern, Switzerland, started out as a composer and became fascinated with really precise sounds, which he would then merge together. But later, the visual element became just as important and now, he is firmly an immersive audio-visual artist.

“He is certainly a visual and an audio artist and to him they cannot be separated,” says Allison. “The sound is integral to the movement.”

Zimoun, a portrait taken for Metal magazine.

Zimoun, a portrait taken for Metal magazine.

The show begins with 37 Prepared DC-Motors, 85 m Rope, Steel Washers Ø 40 mm, a wall piece using a simple mechanical system that causes a curtain of string and washers to wind up and down and create their own soundtrack. Second, 192 Prepared DC-Motors, Wooden Sticks 2.4 m is a wall-hanging of motorised wooden sticks installed in a long corridor in the gallery. This is an iteration of a work previously shown at the Contemporary Art Museum, MAC Santiago de Chile and whilst it is essential very similar to the first – in that the material is almost the same, the slight variation in what is hanging from the rope means that the sound and aesthetic is vastly different – showing just how much tiny differences can make.

In the centre of the gallery hall, 269 Prepared DC-Motors, Cotton Balls, Cardboard Boxes 60x60x60 cm  is a 10 metre-high circular tower of cardboard boxes inside which cotton balls clatter against the boxes to create a deep rumble. This tower is among Zimoun’s signature works, and has been adapted to multiple venues since 2013, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes, France and the STRP Biennial in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

510 Prepared DC-Motors, 2142 m Rope, Wooden Sticks 20 cm - Zimoun's new commission at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Photography John Varghese. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

510 Prepared DC-Motors, 2142 m Rope, Wooden Sticks 20 cm - Zimoun's new commission at the NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery. Photography John Varghese. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi Art Gallery.

The show also contains a major new commission. 510 Prepared DC-Motors, 2142 m Rope, Wooden Sticks 20 cm, consists of small wooden sticks dyed with India ink, making small pirouettes on the floor. Walking around the installation is fascinating. It has the same effect as white noise does on a sleeping baby, all other sounds both externally and internally are faded out and you are left with a moment of peace and reflection – as if put into a trance. The work is incredibly simple but immediately effective.

“There is no theory behind this, it is all about your own psychological experience and this strips away any attempt to find narrative,” says Allison.

Whilst there are many contextual references to draw from art history and other minimalist practitioners: think, Fred Sandback, Donald Judd, Sol Le Witt; Zimoun is also offering a fresh plate of experience where no intellect is needed to enjoy it.

The show ends with 31 Prepared DC-Motors, 31 m Rope, Wooden Sticks 19 cm, Cardboard Boxes 10x10x10 cm in which small sticks dance a percussion in very small boxes. The viewer can then leave the exhibition feeling refreshed or, perhaps, choose to go back in to stay for longer inside the symphony, which asks nothing from you other than to submit and to enjoy.