St. Louis

Elias Sime, Tightrope: Noiseless 8, 2019, reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel, 7' 6“ × 10' 8”. From the series “Tightrope,” 2019–20.

Elias Sime, Tightrope: Noiseless 8, 2019, reclaimed electrical wires and components on panel, 7' 6“ × 10' 8”. From the series “Tightrope,” 2019–20.

Elias Sime

Saint Louis Art Museum

After four months of forced isolation, I felt almost ecstatic experiencing Elias Sime’s work in person. The Ethiopian artist’s massive wall-mounted tableaux, a series of assemblages encrusted with elaborately patterned, discarded, and deconstructed consumer electronics, are magnetically immersive—laden with the kind of visual complexity and handwrought tactility that becomes nullified when viewing art on cell phones and computers. The work calls to mind a sprawling vista from an airplane window, an ephemeral perspective that seems all the more precious now, especially since air travel during this plague has become extraordinarily worrisome. That Sime’s sculptural abstractions exceed the memorial capacity of, say, a personal photo or a picture on a screen is a testament to the work’s powerful physical presence.

While Sime has been making assemblage-based art for more than twenty-five years, it’s only been within the past decade or so that he began incorporating e-waste, i.e., the exponentially proliferating residue of global tech’s planned obsolescence. “Tightrope,” 2019–20, the series on display here, presents a troubling interconnectedness between the technological advancements we embrace and their often deleterious effects on the planet. This conundrum, which is only emphasized by the series’ bewildering laboriousness and sublimely abstract visual character, makes Sime’s project durably complex in a way that similar kinds of work by other artists is not.

The twelve pieces that comprise this exhibition emerged from the “Tightrope” series as well as from Sime’s collaborations with his longtime creative partner, curator and anthropologist Meskerem Assegued. When the pair visited Saint Louis last December, they went to explore the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site, an ancient Mississippian city roughly eight miles east of downtown Saint Louis (and upon which the city’s larger metropolitan area was built). That Assegued and Sime wanted to see the Cahokia Mounds makes sense, given that they were the cofounders of the Zoma Museum, a multidisciplinary arts center located in their home city, Addis Ababa. Zoma is an award-winning architectural marvel that was completed in 2019 and created via traditional Ethiopian building techniques, such as wattle and daub. The museum represents the apotheosis of Sime’s deep relationship to time and to the materiality of place. One could even say the edifice is an enlarged realization of his wall assemblages, which look like miniature cityscapes. Just as Sime tells a transnational story through his use of e-waste, with Zoma he limns a more localized narrative through the use of rural craft traditions to build upon more modern urban foundations.

The persistent impulse among Saint Louis cultural institutions to draw a connection between nonlocal artists’ work and the local culture, while well-intended, risks reinscribing the kind of provincialism it attempts to redress. But that is not the case here. A real kinship is clearly forged between Sime’s working methods and his aesthetic ethos and the city. Take Tightrope: Noiseless 1, 2019, which resembles an aerial view of Saint Louis, but flipped horizontally—an urban hub unfurling from a river’s edge. The work, which is constructed from green wires braided into weedy, tendril-like shapes and woven into wheat-colored circuit boards sprouting white cables, calls to mind the Midwestern prairie. In the adjacent gallery is Tightrope: Noiseless 8, 2019, a verdant patchwork of motherboards that takes on the appearance of the partitioned farmland in rural Missouri. And the two massive half hemispheres of Tightrope: Eyes and Ears of a Bat 1 and 2, both 2020, situated at the heart of the show, made me think of Cahokia’s undulating mounds, but split open and hollowed out. These enormous works—made not of earth but of the stuff littering its surface—radiate a generous capaciousness, despite the unnaturalness of their materials.