Elias Sime, “Tightrope: Noiseless 18” (2019), reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel, 100 1/4 x 63 1/4 inches (all images courtesy James Cohan Gallery)

It is nearly impossible to stop yourself from scrutinizing the rhythmic surface of Elias Sime’s shallow wall reliefs. From a distance, “Tightrope: Noiseless 18” (2019) looks like an aerial view of a city packed with nearly identical gray rooftops. But as you move closer, you soon realize that each rooftop is a bulky plastic key from a computer keyboard dating back to before they became portable. Meanwhile, the blue surrounding the city is made of closely related hues of insulated wire wrapped around nails driven into the wooden panel functioning as a support. This leaves the question: what are the narrow brownish-red areas supposed to convey?

“Tightrope: Noiseless 18” is one of eight works that can be seen in the exhibition, Elias Sime: NOISELESS, at James Cohan (April 27 – June 29, 2019). All of the works are large and could easily hold the wall in the lobby of a corporation devoted to the production, sale, and offloading of computers. I specify “computers” because they are the primary source of the materials that go into Sime’s art, which consists of motherboards, letter keys, and colored strands of insulated and stripped wire.

Elias Sime, “Tightrope: I BURNED IT” (2019), reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel, 104 x 320 inches; left wall: 104 x 120 inches; eight wall: 104 x 200 inches

Sime, who lives and works in Addis Ababa, Ethiopa’s largest city and capital, buys many of his materials in an open-air market. These highly toxic materials have been offloaded by the US and other developed economies into various countries in Africa. Sime uses nails to guide the braided wire across small wood panels, as well as secure it tightly to the panel’s surface. He attaches the braided wood panels together like tiles in a mosaic, building up immense pieces. “Tightrope: I BURNED IT” (2019) runs across the corner of the room, with a large, burned shape hovering like a black cloud near the top center of the vectored panels. The section on the wall to the right measures 104 x 200 inches, while the section on the left wall measures 104 x 120 inches.

Elias Sime, “Tightrope: I BURNED IT” (detail, 2019), reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel, 104 x 320 inches

“Tightrope: I BURNED IT” is my favorite piece in the exhibition. It is made of hundreds of tiles covered in different hues of red, white, blue, and green insulated wire, woven into patterns and abstract configurations that are unique to each piece. Standing there, my eyes jumping from tile to tile, zooming around, I am practically getting dizzy, as the burned section looms like a big, greasy, blackish stain that wants to spread further still.

I don’t remember ever seeing Simes do anything like this before. He is always methodical and meticulous, but when he is pictorial and uses the computer components toward pictorial ends, he begins to lose me.

A city skyline made of motherboards and other computer parts is only momentarily impressive. The imagery feels too literal, which is not the case when Simes does aerial views, especially because he upends our expectations through his color choices. In “Tightrope: Noiseless 18,” it is easy enough to link the gray with buildings and the blue with rivers or ocean, a connection that is enhanced by the curving and swirling patterns of the woven blue wire. But do the brownish-red areas signify water or solid ground? This disruption infuses the work with staying power, as it pulls us into the realm of speculation and reflection.

“Elias Sime: NOISELESS” at James Cohan Gallery, Chelsea, installation view: left: “Tightrope: Noiseless 23” (2019); center: “Tightrope: Noiseless 10” (2019)

This is also true of “Tightrope: Noiseless 10” (2019), which is six feet high and near 10 feet wide. An abstract island made of gray letter keys floats in a sea of red wires, just above an uneven green terrain spanning the bottom of the work. The jagged contours of the island and the terrain fit together in a few places, suggesting that the green area is upholding the unevenly notched form of the gray island. Are we to read the configurations abstractly or pictorially? Are there other factors at work?

Simes can make an incredibly handsome and sensuous piece, but is that enough, especially given the toxic nature of his materials? The offloading of computer parts and other products in Africa and China is poisoning the landscape and even the inhabitants.

Elias Sime, “Tightrope: Noiseless 10” (detail, 2019), reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel, 72 x 114 inches

In “Tightrope: Noiseless 10” and “Tightrope: Noiseless 18,” the procedure is direct – to weave wires or affix keys to each of the panels. The intertwined, swirling wires recall embroidery, weaving, and the use of the loom — crafts that have sustained society in Africa and Asia for eons. When Simes burned a large area of “Tightrope: I BURNED IT, ” he added another step to his process. The destruction and defacement are reminders of what the disposal of computers is doing to the planet, and to developing economies in particular. It is hard not to feel the artist’s seething anger beneath his meticulousness and repetitive actions.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, ought to buy and install it in the lobby of one of his buildings. For all the ways computers have altered our lives for the better, there is another side to the story. Simes wants us to know that, and we should.

Elias Sime: NOISELESS continues at James Cohan (533 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 29.

John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...

8 replies on “Mosaics of Motherboards, Keyboards, and Wire”

    1. I thought we’d moved on from marble sculpture, but evidently contemporary sculptors have not gotten the memo. Don’t even get me started about oil paints!

      1. I thought we only allowed “socially engaged” art now a days. Who even knew sculpture (and ghastly ancient “oils” — especially when we are concerned with stopping oil extraction) were still a thing! Are you telling me that we are still doing ceramics?

    2. god forbid any artist from africa be recognized for making anything that doesnt use discarded or recycled materials. it becomes an art market echo chamber as other, soon-to-be artists in africa see what’s being supported and so follow suit. bummer.

    3. Moved on from what? African artists? People highlighting the tons of garbage produced by tech every year? The impact on the latter on the former? They’re getting more relevant by the minute.

      1. Sheesh, cool the identity politic warrior engines. I meant the Junk aesthetic and the adaptive re-use as art (obviously); and not the “Where is Africa???” sentiment that got lobbed at me. The work is uninteresting regardless of who made it and what it highlights. Not everything has to be a cry for identity politic attacks. Sometimes it can be about aesthetics, form, etc.

        1. Thanks, the Guardian is great. People with Ostrich politics who cannot bear the thought that we need to rethink, basically, most economic models and human habits, are quick to dismiss the truth to replace it with something more comfortable.
          I actually feel like we’re just starting to talk about it as loud as we should be.

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