Vault – Issue 19, July 2017
Asher Bilu: Divine Interventions
Although he’s kept a low public profile in recent years, Asher Bilu, at the age of 80, is as active as he has always been.
Bilu may be a passionate man, but he is not given to flights of fancy. Yet, while he has no inclination towards the dogmas of a structured religion, there is a strange sense of the sacrosanct that one senses when visiting his studio. It’s a distinct feeling that one may have entered a place of worship.
It is partly melancholic and partly uplifting. It is like a chapel where one goes to contemplate both the end and the beginning, the alpha and the omega, birth, death and rebirth. On the walls hang dark, almost stygian canvases, suggestive of charcoal from fires long extinguished, into which arcane cosmological messages have been carved. But before the supplicant can absorb their import it is the central iconographic object that inevitably draws the eye; dominating a black plinth, strangely beautiful, but slightly alien, lie a series of outgrowths, silvery-grey and delicate.
This work, like much of Bilu’s oeuvre, encapsulates life and death in complex, multilayered ways. Delightfully titled resurrection, it reminds us of both the threat the natural world faces and its remarkable resilience.
The sheer elegance of this construction is typical of Bilu’s work – a dazzling balancing act of object placement that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also tells a series of narratives about our world and beyond. Whether he likes it or not, this atheist is a mystic or a seer, not in the 1960s guru-hippie sense, but in a way in which his use of shape, colour and dimensionality conspire to tell a story.
Bilu’s work has always exuded a sense of multidimensional possibilities. Abstraction and technology here combine to create works that exude multitudinous readings. Bilu himself perhaps sums it up most succinctly when he states: “Call it sculpture, or call it painting, my aim is to create visual ecstasies.”
There is a book on theoretical mathematics sitting on Bilu’s dining table, recently acquired from the British Museum. On one hand this is surprising as he admits to doing dismally at maths during his schooling. On the other hand it comes as no surprise at all; his drawings, paintings and sculptural assemblages are infused with investigations into the infinite complexities of the universe, a fascination he clearly shares with many leading mathematical theorists.
“Math is a mystery and a fascination,” he says with a tone of awe. “It takes many different forms. Take the area of chaos theory, the Mandelbrot set, fractals, the sheer element of chance in nature, the mysteries in nature, the way one small thing happens here and has major ramifications over there.” Bilu speaks about quantum mechanics and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but stops short to note that these are essentially scientific notions of reality. “We’re Westerners, so I have that in me, but the East is also so completely compelling, the marriage of the two is extraordinary. I was born in the Middle East so that element of the mystic tradition is in there too.”
Bilu was born in 1936 in Israel. When he turned 14 he was sent to a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley where he fondly recalls his art teacher, Rafael Lohat, helping him to recognise the “freedom of art”. After serving a mandatory stint in Israel’s army service he returned to Tel Aviv. Bilu’s parents had moved to Australia and in 1956 the budding artist decided to join them.
Bilu wasted little time finding a studio in Melbourne’s St. Kilda Road and by 1959 held his first solo exhibition. In attendance, were Georges Mora and John and Sunday Reed. This led directly to follow-up exhibitions at the Reeds’ renowned Heide Museum of Modern Art of Australia and George Mora’s Tolarno Galleries. In the following years, Bilu would win the cherished Blake Prize, join forces with his wife, Luba Bilu, and artist Ivan Durrant to establish the independent artist-run gallery United Artists and work in intense collaboration with filmmaker Paul Cox.
His own work continued to astound viewers and critics alike with its intense theatricality and technical dexterity. He began experimentations involving light, electricity, sound and scale, bewitching audiences with the immersive nature of his installations. Viewers speculated on Bilu’s intent, extrapolating on religious, environmental and cosmological messages imbedded in the installations. The artist avoided definitive explanations, leaving it to the viewer to ponder.
In 2003, McClelland Gallery commissioned a massive sculptural installation from Bilu to be installed to coincide with the inaugural McClelland Sculpture Survey. Crystalline and glowing, Mysterium resembled a blazing comet or an extraterrestrial spermatozoa hurtling towards cosmic impregnation. Mysterium seemed to vibrate in the confines of the deliberately murky enclosure. “There is no need to invent an explanation,” Bilu said in his artist’s statement. “The mystery is everything.” He went on to encourage viewers to “seek knowledge” and Mysterium did indeed inspire intense questioning. A very real clue was perhaps hidden in plain sight in the title of the work which stemmed from Carl Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis, subtitled An Inquiry into the Separation and Synthesis of Psychic Opposites in Alchemy. To be sure, alchemy and psychology, alongside quantum mechanics, abstract mathematics and philosophy of any shape or form, are the fuels that heat the furnace of Bilu’s creativity.
Immersion has long been a tactic for Bilu’s seductive work. It functions as an experiential invitation – a way to coerce the viewer into potentially new ways of considering life, hope, fear, belief, indeed the entire gamut of human consciousness and experience. Nothing could have encapsulated this more than the experience of walking into, and then through, Heavens (2006). Gravity seemed to fall away as one wandered, lost in a galaxy of Bilu’s own design. Despite the immense weight of the installation itself, the effect was the opposite – an ethereal weightlessness, hovering as the viewer explored the cosmos.
The installation could be reconfigured, with the direct result that at every venue there were variations: there wasn’t simply one Heaven, there were Heavens; thus for the unbeliever in a religious Heaven this was simply the heavens above, the flotsam and jetsam of the universe, the stars and constellations one can view on a clear evening. But for believers the work could simultaneously be the celestial kingdom(s) – a Judaic Heaven, a Christian Heaven, a Hindu Heaven… a Heaven of the viewer’s own choice, a paradise or nirvana of one’s own making.
While awe-inspiring it was also, it must be said, deeply spooky. Its labyrinthine nature led one to feel lost, immersed in the ultimate abstraction, removed, perhaps joyously, from the concerns of the ‘real’ world and allowed to ponder just where we sit in the universe. Or, in Bilu’s own parlance, to make people experience the possibility that “the impossible might be possible”.
“I have chosen to deal with abstraction because for me it provides the freedom to explore the unknown,” says Bilu. “To paint figuratively is to paint what I already know or have seen before. The language of abstraction is universal (as is the language of music) and can be accessible to anyone who takes the time to see.” To this end Bilu tackles the complexities of contemporary philosophy and science. Like a manic bowerbird he is a collector of knowledge, from the book of mathematics on his kitchen table to the obscure totems and artefacts adorning his walls – all are grist for the mill. Bilu is a cartographer of unknown planes, forming a lingua franca to transcribe his otherworldly discoveries.
But this is an artist with a clear-cut agenda: “I want to use this language to express the beauty and the mysteries of our existence in an infinite universe of which we are only a small part,” he says. “I hope my optimism and love of life will be contagious.”