08 Oct Featured: Niklas Zimmer
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…
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…
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