It's hard to know what to think of the Zimoun exhibit at the University of Idaho's Prichard Gallery, and that may be precisely the artist's intent. Although the work is intellectually stimulating, each of the five installations designed for or adapted to the gallery space prompts a visceral reaction first.
From the gallery entryway, for example, a floor-to-ceiling wall of 161 cardboard boxes sounds and, more importantly, feels like an engine room: low humming overlaid with muffled, yet rhythmic thumping. Moving closer, you see something — a small motor — causing a white ball to strike the center of each 27-inch square box. The wire connecting each ball to its motor varies in length, and the boxes are not stacked perfectly square. Rather than intimidate, the wall of sound, if you will, is innocuous.
But from his second floor office, gallery director Roger Rowley hears something else entirely.
"It's like living under a waterfall," says Rowley, making a gesture with his hands to indicate how the sound surrounds him.
"I connect the works to various things myself," says Zimoun via email interview from his home base in Bern, Switzerland. "It's almost an endless list. Nature is one of them."
In his statement accompanying the exhibit, Zimoun writes: "Through primitive mechanical systems, I look to activate unspectacular and raw materials which then start to develop a complex behavior."
The primitive mechanical systems, at least in this exhibit, are direct current motors slightly larger than a golf ball, although Zimoun has employed fans, pendulum motors and other devices in other installations, which have appeared in 25 countries over the artist's 15 years exhibiting.
The unspectacular items include cardboard boxes, dense fabric balls, various sized sticks, and wooden disks the size of a CD, plus assorted ropes and wires connecting said objects to their respective direct current motors.
Zimoun titles the works according to their contents — the wall of boxes starts with 161 prepared dc motors — which is beyond understated, like describing Van Gogh's Sunflowers painting in terms of paint and canvas. It's not just the objects causing sound, nor the installation as a visual element, but rather the whole experience that make this such an intriguing exhibit.
The visual aspect and the sound are equally important, one and the same, Zimoun says. "You see what you hear and you hear what you see," he explains. "You even smell it."
Visually, however, Zimoun is a minimalist. The boxes are a banal brown; colors of other items are neutral: black, white, metallic or gray. This allows the viewer to focus on sound, of course, but also form, motion, and the play of light as objects move.
The viewer's experience becomes part of the narrative of each installation as well as the exhibition as a whole. Standing at the edge of an installation whose title begins 153 prepared dc motors, you watch and listen as short black sticks suspended from the ceiling drag and chirp against the floor. Their dragging triggers a reaction in the rope, causing the sticks to jangle more energetically, raising the pitch and quality of sound before resuming the previous cycle. Imagine, though, 153 sticks all doing this at the same time, out of sync, yet also united by their uniform appearance. One can see numerous conceptual parallels to the human condition.
In an adjacent installation, the viewer can enter the room and sit in front of the work: 98 flat wooden disks, each suspended from a rope attached to a motor mounted to the ceiling. The disks shimmy, some so much they look as if they'll spin upright, but never do. There is a tension in watching and hearing this piece, which sounds like flapping wings. The viewer, by entering the room is complicit in the drama, even if only on the periphery.
The fifth installation feels the most inclusive and personal. It allows the viewer to sit in the middle of the room where 198 long wooden sticks are suspended from a rail along the perimeter of the ceiling. Unlike the other installations, not only is the wood unpainted — the knots lend a sense of individuality to the sticks — the pieces actually move enough to touch each other. The sound is gentle and insistent, reassuring even, or maybe it's the interaction of objects themselves that is reassuring.
Reactions to the work vary widely, says Rowley, who notes that during the opening reception, some viewers expressed a sense of anxiety, even anger. Do people see themselves in the bobbling cotton balls? Do they sense the futility in disks that shimmy but can't right themselves? Do they look for meaning in the randomized rhythm of movement and, finding none or not one to their liking, experience a sort of cosmic stress?
There is no answer, only the individual experience. ♦
Zimoun exhibit • Through Sept. 22; Tue-Sat 10 am-8 pm, Sun 10 am-6 pm • free • University of Idaho, Prichard Gallery • 414 S. Main St., Moscow • prichardart.org • 208-885-3586