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Featured: Niklas Zimmer

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Niklas Zimmer is an artist and musician based in Cape Town. Amongst other media, Zimmer mainly works in photography, sound and performance.


Tell us more about yourself and your journey so far…

I was born in 1975 to German parents in Bangkok, the city of angels in Thailand. I spent my early Kindergarten years in Bonn, the former capital of Germany, and when I was four we moved to Lesotho. There, I went to Maseru prep school until we moved back to Germany in 1982. Landing back up there at eight years of age, missing my friends and the untarred roads, I swore to myself that I would not stay there any longer than I could help it.


When I matriculated in 1994, I immediately left for Southern Africa. First, I worked on a farm in Namibia for a bit, and then I spent almost a year in Cape Town, drawing and painting and getting to know all sorts of new people and ways of understanding the world. I started studying fine art at Michaelis in ’96, the year of my twenty-first birthday. My honours graduation in sculpture was in ’99, and somewhere in-between I got married.  After our first son was born, my wife and I moved to Germany for a few years, and I went on to study education at University of Cologne, becoming qualified to teach Art and English at High School level. In those years I produced four pretty experimental CDs under my music label Upland07, often in collaboration with other leftfield creatives from South Africa. Upon our return to South Africa in 2005, the German International School employed me as head of department for Visual Arts. I left this position in 2008, since my art teacher’s salary was no longer enough, nor was the work entirely fulfilling. That was when I started on the long, winding road of many professional and freelance engagements that continues to this day: lecturing theories of art and teaching video, audio and photography at tertiary level, doing commissioned photography, a bit of writing, some drumming, art consulting, and the ongoing work at the Centre for Popular Memory, an oral history archive at the University of Cape Town.


Since 2010 I have had three solo exhibitions of my photography, and been included in a number of group shows, too. Apart from the odd sound- or video installation or performance-based work, my main art medium has become photography. Some of my works have sold very well, others not at all, but altogether I have felt encouraged to keep going. I am also very glad I don’t depend on performing as my main source of income, because making a living from music is an even crazier tightrope walk between creative compromise and starvation than it is in the artworld.


Having lived in such a variety of places, you’ve been exposed to many different cultures and ways of life. How does this contribute to and influence your work?

This question is both very easy and impossible to answer at once. Across all the things I’ve made and been part of making, be it in photography, music or writing, there is a tendency to trace vital essences, or to allude to them through constructing a particular kind of viewpoint on what is beautiful. I’ve struggled to have anything like an art career here in South Africa, since most of my work is not overtly political, nor is my personal identity of great popular interest. I don’t have a presence in Germany, although I would love that to change one day, when I am ready. In the meantime, I can’t tell you what my work in general means, particularly to others. I have grown to appreciate the peace of mind that comes with not being in the limelight a lot.


What are some of the other things that influence and inspire your work?

If I come across an image, a sound, a thought that moves me, it immediately becomes a site of interest, and will form part of my own making of images, sounds and thoughts. I have no original ideas, I just recycle what comes my way. In photography, for instance, I love the moment when all those elements that cannot be planned come to play their essential part in a very controlled set-up. Then art isn’t mimicking life, but declares itself part of life.


Indicated by your decision to do your Masters dissertation on the history of Jazz Photography in Cape Town, you clearly find the intersections between music and art interesting. Why is this?

I ended up narrowing that thesis right down to a detailed discussion of the contact sheets of a particular photographer of Jazz culture in the ’60s, Basil Breakey. But of course I spoke to many local photographers in this field, and it was fascinating to learn about how deeply political both the worlds of jazz and photography are, here in South Africa. This is quite different in Europe I think. My initial interest was biographical: my father was an avid amateur photographer and a great fan of Jazz. Our home in Maseru was often a gathering place for his friends to listen to the latest records from overseas, often stuff that was banned in South Africa. I am deeply fascinated with the aesthetic forms of resistance, protest and spiritual insight that co-join the musicians’ and the photographers’ search for truth in the fleeting, intensely charged moment.


Give us some more insight regarding your process…

My newest work, a photographic print of 100×75 cm, took me more than 3 months to complete. It is a single landscape-scene with a group of people in it, who turn out to be multiples of always one and the same couple. The whole scene is stitched together out of around 90 shots, but there is no trace of this construction process. Careful planning is always important, so that one can be open to creative opportunities when they present themselves during a shoot. In this case, there were a number of spontaneous moves on behalf of my models that suddenly had art-historical resonances, and ended up lending the image a wonderful depth. All it takes is consistent grinding away at your work, whatever it is, and in this to be open to the beautiful ‘accidents’ that happen along the way. It is like treasure-hunting, but without any competitors.


For my last solo show entitled ‘Into the Night’ I was working with long exposures at night, and discovered that 6×7 medium format film paired with coloured LED lights was the way to create the aesthetic that I was after. Also, I found a life-drawing model who also works as a dancer: perfect for discovering and holding dramatic poses very still for long periods of time – something most people would find physically impossible to do. We shot in all sorts of locations around the city at night, which marked this period in my memory as a time of intense, night-time loneliness before and after these shoots, something that I think also came through in the exhibition as a whole.

Generally, even if most of a whole show’s worth of images was shot in one day, this happens after months of preparation, and would then involve another few months of editing, re-selecting, proofing, printing, framing and so on. It’s long-winded and expensive; I don’t recommend it as a career.


Although each individual project has its own message, is there anything you aim to communicate through your art collectively?

I’m hesitant with an answer to this question, because I believe that art is too often reduced to mere (visual, sonic etc) communication. What does my personal desire or wish to communicate anything in particular have to do with what a viewer experiences in front of my work? Seeing as I am not advertising anything as a Vis-Com designer, can discrepancies between my personal ‘aims’ and the work itself (whatever that is) be construed into some kind of benchmark of success or failure for my ‘art collectively?’ I understand that one sometimes wants to get a handle on things, and hear what an artist ‘was thinking about,’ but something in me is reluctant about this kind of requirement for blanket statements. Here is one: I think I mean to communicate a Joie de vivre that takes cognisance of all the contradictions and failures in life and art, but I’m not sure if that’s ever entirely true or false. Time, and others, may say something more intelligent in retrospect.


What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learnt through your career so far?

I’ve learnt to take things easier, with a pinch of salt, less seriously. That hasn’t been the function of any ‘career’ (which I don’t think I have had), but just one of life’s blessings, and spending time with my little family and close friends along the way.


What are your thoughts regarding the topic of photography as art?

I have written a few hundred pages on that, and read more than a few thousand, so it’s a bit tricky to be brief here. Why would the use of photography NOT be able to result in an artwork, in much the same way as pen-and-paper CAN result in an artwork? There are, however, some really important things to consider along the way, and these are often missed in our current (digital) imaging-society. For instance the topic of ‘documentary art photography’ – not one which one can or even needs to engage with if one is a self-ascribed immoral person. However, there are ethical boundary-crossings going on in so-called documentary photography which in my mind do not automatically make it art. I’d say most of what is marketed as ‘art photography’ these days is often neither art nor particularly interesting photography.


What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans going forward?

My latest work was recently shown at Aardklop festival, in a group show called ‘Weerberig,’ and I will have some work on the upcoming Greatmore Studios auction. I’m still working on my half-day job as digitisation manager at the Centre for Popular Memory, while I’m busy writing two academic articles (one on photography and one on sound studies) and working on a translation for a German researcher. Subtle Agency, the artists’ collective that I take photographs for, is currently raising more funding for another trip across Southern Africa to create images in collaboration with healers that work with the spiritual efficacy of indigenous plants (see: ‘Planting Seeds to Hunt the Wind’). On the music side, I was blessed a few weeks ago to be playing a free big-band concert with Louis Moholo-Moholo entitled ‘Born to be Black,’ while I’m waiting for my ‘As Is’ ensemble members Garth Erasmus and Manfred Zylla to return from Germany, so we can start rehearsing and performing again. I also think I need a holiday.


See more of Niklas’ work here


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