Elias Sime

Elias Sime on living and working with technology

Elias Sime, Tightrope: Silent 1, 2019, reclaimed electronic components on panel, 6' 1/2“ x 10' 6”.

Elias Sime is best known for creating scrupulous, large-scale abstractions out of motherboards, keyboards, and circuitry. He acquires much of his material at open-air markets in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is based and where he cofounded ZOMA Contemporary Art Center in 2002 and Zoma Museum earlier this year with Meskerem Assegued, who has curated many of his exhibitions. (Assegued acted as interpreter for this interview.) “Tightrope,” Sime’s first major museum survey, was organized by Hamilton College’s Wellin Museum of Art in Clinton, New York, and will run through December 8, 2019. It includes a selection of his assemblages from the last decade as well as an outdoor sculpture inspired by the famed peonies of former Hamilton professor A. P. Saunders (1869–1953), a hybridist whose vibrant cultivars reside in a garden on campus.

I DON’T FOCUS ON TRADITION; I focus on being in the moment. Tradition is part of other people’s assumptions. I see the same thing wherever I go: The same lifestyle, the same emotions, the same personalities, everything. Even the traditions. That’s not what I try to do with my art. My art is often a reaction to what I see in that moment. My art could fit in anywhere.

Before, when I traveled to parts of the world, I saw people—lovers, friends—kissing or touching. A lot of physical presence. Now I don’t see that. They’re all engaged in the machine, not with one another. When you don’t talk while looking eye to eye, how do you know one another? Or have a conversation? My work reclaims these machines in a tender way, as I am not in opposition to technology. It’s about how to balance it with “real” life. We’ve become off-balance. My title for my series of collages, “Tightrope,” 2013, has a double meaning. It’s about this equilibrium, but I also wanted it to evoke a string: If you pull it too tight, it will break.

Material and idea go hand in hand in my work. Sometimes, the material motivates my thoughts, and sometimes it is the opposite. Many of the computer parts and electronic components that were once cheap and readily available are now too difficult to find or too expensive to purchase. They’re suddenly needed and exported, so I’m holding on to what I have. Sometimes I start working on a piece, and it sits around for years because I don’t have enough. It’s inaccurate to say I source from waste, or that my work is a sort of recycling. Certainly, looking for waste is not what I think about when I make art. I collect what goes with my composition. The computer chips I used twenty years ago have become historical items that represent a certain era. They’ve become antiques. The stuff I’m using today represents what is being used right now. I never think of it as waste when I am working with it. “Tightrope” is more like an archive, a timeline of technology that may bring about certain memories in the viewer.

I’m uninterested in promoting craftsmanship or skill. What I’m constantly thinking about is: How can I express what I want to say? If that means braiding the most unbelievable detail into my work, I do it, because it tells that story, that tension. I think a lot about our increasing competitiveness, our need to get somewhere faster than we can. I wonder where we are trying to go and whether we want to get there quickly. I am fascinated by how fast the keyboard has evolved and become. A keyboard from a couple decades ago and a keyboard from today are completely different technologies, doing the same thing. My art is slowing it down. The work forces me to slow down.

At the Wellin Museum of Art, I’ve made a freestanding sculpture influenced by the Saunders peony, a hybrid flower that was developed at Hamilton College and is the largest of its genus. This manmade species cannot reproduce because it is seedless. A human has to replant it. The Saunders peony is, I think, like a computer. Everything about it has been manipulated to reflect the desires of its creator. While A. P. Saunders was developing the flower, there were times when he would destroy the seed because it didn’t produce the colors he sought. What an incredible manipulation—we are seeing only what this one man likes. I look at these flowers and think about what competition is doing to the world.