Elias Sime Brings Out the Beauty in E-Waste

BRISTOL, England — Elias Sime’s large, multipaneled works gleam like aerial views of cities caught in the evening sun or undulate like topographical diagrams of mountains and rivers. On closer inspection, these scenes resolve into mazes of wires, circuit boards, batteries, bulbs, and keys. Currently on view in Eregata እርጋታ at Arnolfini, they are crafted from discarded electronics, many of which find their way to the artist’s home city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, after being disposed of around the world. Sime seeks to make visible the vast scale of the waste produced by digital technologies, which, as communications become increasingly fast, are also reaching obsolescence with increasing rapidity. 

Sime’s process, by contrast, is determinedly slow; a single work may take many years to complete. Picking through piles of e-waste, the artist painstakingly separates and sorts different elements before collaging them onto wooden panels with glue or nails. This is not simply an exhortation to recycle or use less. Instead, the works interrogate international technological culture, weaving together complex networks of ideas, actors, and materials. 

Sime is interested in how these components bear the imprint of many human hands and the markers of many different forms of labor, from the physical production of the motherboard to its use for digital exchanges to it being stripped for recycling or landfill. 

Many of the works in Eregata እርጋታcome from the artist’s Tightrope series (2009–ongoing), crafted from braided wires. Sime sees braiding as a metaphor for drawing disparate elements together and for how human beings are intimately interwoven with both technology and the natural world. Braiding is a traditional Ethiopian craft technique and a human skill used globally; as such, it offers an effective literal and metaphorical link between the local and universal scales of his work. 

Elias Sime: Eregata እርጋታ continues at Arnolfini (16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, England) through February 18. The exhibition was curated by Gemma Brace, Head of Exhibitions at Arnolfini.

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