The Wick - Zoniel Burton The Wick - Zoniel Burton
Monday Muse

Interview Zoniel of Walter & Zoniel 

16 May 2022
16 May 2022
Zoniel is one half of the London-based artist duo Walter & Zoniel. Since 2008, their multidisciplinary practice has spanned installation, sculpture, film, performance and photographic process. A thirst for learning feeds their practice, which is driven by joy and a connection to the sublime. Exploring our existence and relationship with the world around us, their work aims to encourage us to do the same, to think about our connections with nature and the cosmos, and each other. All of their work carries the undercurrent of their optimism and mantra that everything is possible. They also firmly believe art should be accessible to everyone and use fun as a gateway to lure people in. Their recent public artwork in the Discovery section of last week’s Photo London, Rainbow Camera, invited visitors into a giant-format box camera to capture themselves using a wall of multicoloured scanners.

Here, Zoniel shares what’s next in the pipeline for them and what they’d like to see from the art world in general.

THE WICK:   Talk us through a typical Monday.

Zoniel:   I don’t actually have a ‘typical’ any day, due to the nature of our work. Mondays, though, are often a day for us to relax, as we tend to work through the weekend as there’s no need for us to adhere to a weekly format.

Most days I wake up at 4-4:30am. I’m always woken by inspiration, it’s the time when my mind is often flooded with ideas or solutions to processes we are creating. That time is very energetic and I will write down or draw out any plans that are in my head and research ideas further.

When I get up, I rarely speak until I’ve practiced. I make a cup of cacao, then do my meditation practice for about an hour. I find practicing in the morning is essential, I was taught in a monastery as a child but only kept a daily practice since I was ordained as a Buddhist nun when I was 19. I liken meditation to a mental version of having a shower or brushing your teeth. You could get away without doing those things but you just wouldn’t feel as fresh for the rest of the day.

After that it could be absolutely anything. Our work is so varied, installations require so much planning, being on the computer, researching, calling people. Our creative processes could be building a giant camera, making tools to create new work, driving round chasing clouds to take pictures of, doing research with local communities.

I like to get some time outside, either walking our dogs on the cliffs or the beach. The sea is a great source of inspiration and usually I spend some time by it or in it each day.

TW:   You work collaboratively with your partner, Walter. Tell us about this process.

Z:   Walter and I spend the whole time together. We live in our own bubble, a world of our own creation, which makes it simple for us create together. We don’t have specific roles that either of us do, we just work project by project on whichever element has inspired each of us.

We tend to work in a way that we have lots of ideas bubbling about and we’ll think of an element of an artwork together, which may be the process or the concept. We’ll pull it apart and let it sit for a bit and then there will be a moment when another element is introduced and the whole idea comes together. That’s when the journey of creation starts to unfold clearly and very rapidly. It’s very fast and intense.

We work on a number of projects at the same time, process based and installations. This enables us to keep the flow of inspiration pretty continuous as we can flit between works if we need to refresh.

We are very similar and also very different and that is key to us working so well together. if we just thought the same way, our work wouldn’t be as expanded or as interesting as it is. We enjoy pulling our concepts apart and looking at them from all angles until we find what the essence of what we’re connecting to is. It’s analytical but primarily deeply intuitive. We kind of enter a zone together where everything just flows and it’s the most wonderful place in the world to be.

We have intensely analytical minds, but in very different ways. Walter has a measured practicality but also a wildness to his creativity, he may focus, focus, focus and then he wants to break free. I have a much more abstract and instinctive way of thinking, but I find efficiency so delicious that I’ll analyse things and play with them until I come up with the most satisfying ways for us to create. I feel like our artworks are an emotional mathematical equation, and I won’t sleep until the equation is solved, there’s always a moment when everything clicks into place. Problem solving is a really big part of our creative process as we’re generally creating something that’s never been done before.

When it comes to installations, we have to plan so much and though we both do that, Walter maybe takes on more of the literal elements of that, I focus primarily on the experiential side. I want people to experience the work in a way that is fully immersive so we put a lot of thought and practice into working out how we can achieve that.

We both get so involved when our installations are live, we’ll invariably lose our voices from talking to participants so much. It feels like a blessing that we get to share in these supremely joyous moments with people. It’s completely addictive, all we want to do is create more and more euphoria.

TW:   It’s been said that you explore humans’ innate connections with each other and the universe. How do you begin to approach a subject matter of this size?

ZB:   That can be quite a complex way of describing what is essentially energy and being human.

The thing about this subject of energetic connection and the human condition is that it is innate, it’s within everything around us. The subject is as micro as it is macro. I can see why it may seem like a massive subject to deal with but we don’t feel like that at all. It is our lives; it is our existence upon this planet. In our minds, that is the only important subject. The purpose of art, to elevate us and connect to that energy, to the sublime, that’s what inspires and drives us to create.

The essence, of energy, of being, is hidden in plain sight in everything that you touch, feel and see, that’s our driving creative force. Our work however, may reach people in an entirely different way and they make their own connection on a literal or practical level, that’s their relationship and their experience.

A key part of our practice is a meditation upon energy and you can label it mysticism, science, spirituality, life-force, it’s all the same thing. Having daily meditation practice keeps us tuned into that energy literally and that simplifies everything.

TW:   Which work are you most proud of creating?

Z:   I don’t really feel a connection to the concept of pride. We create work and then I don’t even feel like it’s ours, it’s just out there for everyone.

“We want art to be as accessible as possible, so we use these means to lure people into doing something that they may not think was ‘for them’.”

TW:   Do you have a preferred medium?

Z:   We work in so many mediums because we are drawn to them all equally and we use mediums themselves to serve a conceptual purpose within our work. I love creating installations because of the immersive quality of them, they are living and people become part of them, and I love that sense of life and art actually happening and effecting people in real time.

Equally, the process of physical creation is so immensely satisfying, the journey is deeply intuitive and imbibing a physical object with a powerful sentiment feels so like alchemy, like magic. I love creating something so beautiful and so imbibed with joy while feeling absolute freedom from attachment to it, knowing it’s for somebody else to have to experience.

When I studied thangka painting in the monastery there were paintings that could take painters six years to finish in intense detail. I found the experience of knowing what you were working on wasn’t yours actually incredibly freeing, it was a sense of practicing rather than ownership.

I feel like a conduit, to create something that someone else is calling, and I love the feeling of releasing an artwork into the world, whatever the medium.

TW:   Tell us about Rainbow Camera at Photo London.

Z:   The RainbowCam is a giant interactive camera installation. It has a vertical wall of seven flatbed scanners (similar to photocopiers). They’re arranged in a way that you can just about stretch yourself across them all to take a self-portrait, or you can squeeze in as a group, which can turn into a vertical game of twister.

You have to push yourself against the scanners to be photographed, the images are then filtered, collaged together and sent to you as a digital image.

Like all of our installations, it’s inherently playful but it has deeper themes that we are looking at within it. One element is the way that the most recent proliferation of photography has changed our relationship with exhibitionism. It’s totally normal now to see people really involved in taking portraits in public in a very performative way, that didn’t used to be the case. The RainbowCam plays with that exploration of our public boundaries and awareness.

TW:   You utilise joy as a tool within your work. What purpose does it serve?

Z:   Joy or fun is an essential component of our work. Fun is an incredibly powerful tool to use to connect people. People often consider fun to be frivolous, but I believe it to be essential and that should be the baseline of our experience within the world.

Fun and joy aren’t really seen as ‘serious’ elements within the art world (or the world as a whole), so they’re a clever tool to bypass the idea of an artwork being inaccessibly intellectual. By imbibing our work with fun, we open a door to just about everyone to feel like they can experience an installation. We want art to be as accessible as possible, so we use these means to lure people into doing something that they may not think was ‘for them’.

All of our work has inherently intellectual elements to it as its deeply conceptual. I think a lot and layer multiple levels into our work so that people can experience them in different ways and those who like to delve deep will find deeper intellectual concepts. We are, however, firm believers that art is for everyone, and I mean everyone. That is as much the intellectual or academic as every person on the street, maybe someone who has never visited a gallery.

Art should uplift you, connect you to the magic that binds us, give you something, become part of you from making that connection. When you look at it, as you feel something, it becomes yours. Using joy and fun, we put that up front as a way to show this is for everyone.

TW:   What would you like to see more of in the art world?

Z:   Something that I’d love to see happen is a shift of curatorial focus taking inspiration from what artists are actually creating. I’d love to see curation being driven by research into the more expansive and explorative directions of artistic creation. I’d love to see curators seeking out artistic movements that are naturally occurring, rather than agenda driven.

Art is an enigmatic force, it’s created through connecting, tuning in to inspiration, visualising and creating that which has never existed before. It has a magic at the heart of it and it has an incredible potential to deliver wonder, inspiration and joy, and connect people.

Curators are often the gatekeepers of art to the general public and recently it seems that a lot of curation has been politically driven. It’s understandable as many people are addicted to news cycles and politics. But it is deeply important that the curatorial role is realised to be above this and curators should not be selling the same stories as newspapers. Art is beyond politics, which is a very literal and manipulative game. It’s like the old concept of church and state. Art represents church to me but church, art and state, never the twain shall mix.

By curating politically driven shows, art itself becomes part of a political agenda and loses its ability to elevate. It may be informative, it may be ‘PC’, it may make a lot of people feel good about themselves, but political climates change and they are deeply diverse. Art is the opposite of that, it is inclusive, it is spiritual, it is empowering. The empowerment that art can provide is about recognising what is within you. We can only progress as a society by acceptance and expansion aside from everyday politics.

I dream of a future where curators see themselves as the important gatekeepers that they are and recognise politics as the irrelevant beast that it is within the creative domain. Give people an exhibition that delights them, that empowers them, that gives them beauty and joy and inspires them to live well and love.

TW:   What would be your dream project?

Z:   We are in love with Venice and there is so much scope for a fantastic site-specific installation there, so representing the UK for the Venice Biennale would be an absolute dream project.

Really scaling up one of our surreal, interactive public installations that induces joy and having a simultaneous site-specific install that connected multiple social demographics and neighbourhoods would be dreamy. I love the idea of evoking joy, of connecting people to the essence of themselves, imbibing that in a surreal memory and connecting people through that shared experience across the globe.

TW:   What’s next for Walter & Zoniel?

Z:   Three large-scale public installations are in the pipeline for this summer. They’re all big projects that are surreal, fun and euphoric.

We’re also working on new series that add an experiential element to our physical works. They will call something from you to engage with, I can’t explain more until they’re further down the line but I’m really excited to take our physical practice in this direction.

TW:   What is your favourite culturally curious spot in London?

Z:   One of my favourite nooks is the walled herb garden in the Geffrye Museum. The Geffrye museum itself is fascinating but not many people seem to visit the gardens, so it’s generally quiet. It’s divided into four sections: medicinal, culinary, cosmetic and household herbs. You can be in there and feel the loveliness of the plants and their wonderful scents, or you can read about the different herbs and get this incredible insight into how life used to be and how connected to plants everybody was.

Our old studio used to be just around the corner and we’d go there all the time to sit and have a break.

TW:   Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?

Z:   Mother Nature. Find me a greater artist that encapsulates perfection in imperfection, weaves surreality seamlessly into the everyday world, harnesses every form of energy, creates outrageously, continuously, delightfully and who’s work evokes delight, dreams, action and ease in equal measure.

Her flowers are seriously out there though. I often think flowers are the most acceptably outrageous things on the planet. If people judged other people in the same way they judge flowers, with pure appreciation for their uniqueness, the world would be devoid of conflict.

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