Ringling visitors see and hear Swiss artist Zimoun’s creations
IF YOU COULD VISUALIZE SOUND, THIS is what it might look like: Zimoun’s kinetic sculptures that writhe and rattle and vibrate and quiver.
The Swiss artist puts common industrial items — wire, motors, cotton, cardboard boxes — together in uncommon ways. The effect is surprisingly mesmerizing and hypnotic.
Take, for example, his 2010 piece,“361
(Zimoun’s titles all sound like hardware store lists; they’re functional descriptions of all the elements used.)
The 361 filler wires all turn, courtesy of the dc motors embedded in a square wooden tabletop, planted in straight rows, like a crop. The wires, looking much like metallic grass waving in the wind, create light clanking sounds as they sway back and forth and hit against each other. The patterns they form are simple and beautiful.
The sculpture is one of five works in Zimoun’s solo show at Sarasota’s Ringling Museum of Art. The exhibit, “Zimoun: Sculpting Sound,” is a coup for the museum, as it’s the first time the artist’s work has been shown in Florida, and one of the few times it’s been shown in the United States.
The sound sculptures and installations of Zimoun are graceful, mechanized works of playful poetry.
COURTESY PHOTO “I think of it as a metallic wheat field,” says Dr. Matthew McLendon, the museum’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art. “It’s a wonderful juxtaposition — the industrial, the mass produced, the electric, with the organic.”
Dr. McLendon, who curated the show, first learned about Zimoun’s work through Matthew Harmon, the museum’s exhibition designer. Mr. Harmon sent him videos of Zimoun’s work in action. (The artist himself photographs and videotapes his own work. For a look at the Ringling exhibit, go to www.zimoun.ch/works/2011/sarasota/ringling.html.)
“I thought they were great; I was blown away by the videos,” says Dr. McLendon. “I immediately contacted his gallery in New York. We then had an eight- or nine-month conversation leading up to the exhibit.
“This is the largest museum showing he’s had, and it’s probably the most ideal as a setting. He was very pleased with it.”
The Ringling Museum sent the artist diagrams of the galleries, and Zimoun responded by describing what the ideal site would look like. The museum then proceeded to tear down some walls in the West Galleries and build new ones to accommodate the works.
“One of the things that’s really important is how you interact with the pieces,” says Dr. McLendon, adding that the museum has all-white walls especially for this show, something Zimoun has never had before when exhibiting his works.
Even the floors were painted a highgloss white, adding to the industrial feel. Heavy plastic vertical strips, the kind you’d see in meat lockers, separate the various rooms, so the sound from one work doesn’t bleed into the next.
“I was taking someone from his gallery in New York through the exhibit,” Dr. McLendon says. “She’d seen ‘361 prepared dc-motors’ installed elsewhere, and she remarked how great it was that there’s so much room around it here. It gives the piece space to breathe… Little things like that make so much difference.”
Playful yet complex
Zimoun’s work can be experienced on two levels, Dr. McLendon says. As he’s watched museum visitors walk through the exhibit, “Their first response is to smile,” he says.
“There’s something playful about Zimoun’s work. It brings out the inner child in us. When we were children, we wanted to take apart our toys to see how they work. You get a sense of that in Zimoun’s work.”
His work also subverts the history of minimal art by his use of different materials. For example, he uses the geometrical shape of the cube, “but rather than a large, monolithic steel cube, it’s a cardboard box. You have a handmade quality to it.”
You can also think about Zimoun’s work in terms of chance, the aspect of chance that’s a part of all our lives, he says.
The first piece patrons see when they enter the gallery is “175 prepared dcmotors, filler wire 1.0 mm.”
The 175 thin, spinning wires dangle from a row of small motors set into the wall. It’s like seeing straight pencil lines come to life, or like a Cy Twombly painting in motion.
“It’s the same type of motor, all receiving the same amount of electricity,” Dr. McLendon says. “It’s the same wire: same length, diameter. In this system, they all should be acting in the same way. But you have the element of chance at play. The wires start to tangle with each other, and this affects how they rotate.
“It doesn’t work as a perfect system. Each motor and wire almost takes on a personality of its own. You can relate this to our lives, and how chance impacts all of our lives.”
As the wires spin and hit each other, they also scrape against the white wall, creating marks. “It’s fascinating to watch. The markings on the wall become more and more pronounced as the exhibition continues.”
Thinking outside the box(es)
The remaining three works all incorporate large cardboard boxes.
“246 prepared dc-motors, wire isolated, cardboard boxes 41x41x41 cm” is a towering semi-circle of boxes. When you step inside the semi-circle, you see a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling in the middle. Small motors on each box rotate long curved wires that whip about like snakes. Over and over again, the wires constantly strike the cardboard, like self-flagellating monks.
More than one viewer has compared the sound to that of rain striking a roof or a tent.
“Zimoun’s sculpture is abstract,” says Dr. McLendon. “It’s always fascinating to me how there is this real instinctual need to make meaning where there is no meaning. It’s an abstract sound. We layer something onto it, the sound of rain, for example.”
And the titles are simple lists of the materials used “so he’s not layering meaning onto the work. It leaves space for the viewer to make his or her own meaning.”
In the next room is “80 prepared dcmotors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 71x71x71 cm,” a staggered wall of cardboard boxes line one wall. On each face is a tiny motor, from which hangs a wire with a cotton ball at the end. The motors turn the wires, and the cotton balls, looking like timpani mallets, continuously beat against the cardboard. The sound is not dissimilar to taiko drumming. One viewer exclaimed that it sounded like the roar of a subway train. The sound changes the closer a viewer gets to the piece, and the Doppler effect can be achieved by walking along the length of the wall.
The fifth and final piece consists of “49 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 51x51x51 cm,” but these boxes are all lying on the floor. The cotton balls at the end of the wires can’t fight against gravity, so they vibrate and rumble against the surfaces of the boxes.
“In that last piece with the cotton balls rotating on the tops of boxes, the cotton is starting to degrade,” Dr. McLendon points out. “There are markings on the boxes. The boxes are starting to degrade. They are changing.
“These are works in progress, in a lot of ways.”
A learning experience
Zimoun came from Switzerland to assemble the installations earlier this fall, working with assistance from 10 students from the nearby New College of Florida and Ringing College of Art and Design.
“It gave the juniors and seniors the chance to work with an international artist and gain behind-the-scenes experience in how an artist and a museum work together,” Dr. McLendon says. “He’s great fun. He worked around the clock while he was here.
“Hands down, he’s the nicest person I’ve ever worked with in any capacity. I cannot sing his praises high enough. He’s a consummate professional.”
Zimoun is a self-taught artist who’s always been interested in sound and art.
“He started out playing music as a young kid and has always been involved in music,” Dr. McLendon says. “Simultaneously, he was making little comic books and drawing. He started out doing some photography, and then he came into this, all through his own experimentation and self-teaching.”
Though the kinetic, industrial sculptures are a far cry from the Old Masters in the museum’s permanent collection, patron response has been so overwhelmingly positive that the exhibit, originally scheduled to close Jan. 8, has been extended through mid-February.
The most common reaction from visitors, Dr. McLendon says, is: “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” And that pleases him.
“I want to expose people to new, unfamiliar work that will hopefully get them thinking and seeing in a different way.” ¦
>> “Zimoun: Sculpting Sound”
>> When: through mid-February
>> Where: The Ringling Museum of Art, 5401
Bay Shore Road, Sarasota
>> Cost: $25, $20 for seniors, $5 for students
with ID and children 6-17
>> Info: (941) 357-5700 or www.ringling.org