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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.