Heather Ellyard – HEAVENS Catalogue (2006)

In Awe of the Universe

Heather Ellyard


Sometimes the concept of heaven is very primitive: in the beginning was the void. It was incomprehensible and terrifying. Then thought evolved and the indistinguishable darkness was divided into two, heaven and earth. We all know the story. Some of us revere it. Most of us respect it. All religious persuasions, one way or another, look to the stars and invent narratives to approach the gap between ourselves and cosmic space and to grasp some idea of the stars beyond their sprayed light and spangled beauty.

Scientists, on the other hand, look to the sky with a cause and effect mind-set. They may embrace eurekas, but not miracles. They are trained to formulate questions and examine answers, to probe the unknown until they know something, then to use that knowing as a threshold for the next exploration. And they have made astonishing discoveries into the nature and origins of the universe. All the way back to what they think is the hiss of the beginning, billions of years ago.

Artists and poets have a different take, not oppositional, just different. I will call it wonder-in-the-blood. When such wonder is linked with imagination, the results can be almost as infinite, on a human scale, as space itself is, astronomically. Asher Bilu has spent his entire adult life in awe of the universe, not as a religious man, though his roots are firmly Jewish, but as an artist, whose roots have no boundaries. The roots of the artist will go anywhere to drink and find nourishment.

Heavens is the work of an artistic giant. The installation is 168 metres long, in double rows, made up of 42 parts each one of which is the width and height of an entire household wall. Technically, each unit develops from back, to middle to foreground. Painted first, the largest rhythmic swirls, like enormous looped ciphers, made with a strong arm. Following that, concentric and sometimes elliptical circles, meeting and leaving each other like a blood-pulse. Next, thousands upon thousands of tiny dots, something like traditional dot painting, but leaving ground for sky. The great Aboriginal elder, Emily Kame Kngwarreye said, about her work, that she painted the lot, the whole lot of her home place, Alhakere Soakage. Asher Bilu’s art-home is not earth formed. His innumerable dots are insistent reminders of deep space.

After the dots, come the eyes, small black-white, or sometimes the other way round, orbs. Maybe they are celestial Watchers. Again, thousands of them each prepared individually, on dozens of perspex trays, dried outdoors, in the sun and wind, and then painstakingly attached to the paintings. Finally, the so-called fine-tuning. Using very small brushes, up to ‘ooo’ for those who collect such facts, making lines which reverberate like notes in Pythagoras’ Cosmic Symphony. Now here is the punch line. All of this massively scaled, repetitive labour, from the first gestural swirls to the last fine quiver-lines, was done, bit by bit, by hand. All of it is a meditation on detail but always and extraordinarily, with the larger installation firmly in mind. If you take in Heavens, while simultaneously counting just one small area of dots, you will begin to appreciate the enormity of Bilu’s vision.

The title, Heavens, is deliberately plural, to insure that there is no mistaking this vast work for a specifically religious expression. Its scope is a reverent but secular inclusiveness, inviting all willing participants. I am reminded, though, of a reference from the biblical world, the Apocryphal text from the possibly pseudepigraphical, ca. 3rd century BCE Book of Enoch, where it is written

And they showed me there all the movements and sequences, and all the rays of the solar and lunar light. And I measured their movements and compared their light. (11:1-22)

Everywhere we look in Heavens, we find an explosion of light. Brilliant, systematic and purposeful, like nerve endings in the body. Everywhere, a reverence for pattern. Nowhere exactly the same. Darkness and light brim and collide more like organic densities, than a philosophical contradiction.

Every artist must find his own vocabulary, in order to ‘speak’ from the inside out. Long ago, Asher Bilu opted for abstraction. It liberated him from the conventions of still life, portrait, landscape, in fact from most categories we can label aesthetically and file away. Instead, he persisted with a grammar of line, curve, dot, circle, in order to speak as clearly as he possibly could about deep space. He gets there through matter itself. Combined with his absolute and humble awe of the whole thing: mind, matter and the infinite. Every work of his that I have ever experienced is saturated with wonder.

Heavens is above all, experiential. This is not work to stand back and to look at. One must walk through it, notice its slight movements brought on by human currents and also by the artist’s cosmic calligraphy and conceptual intentions. One must be in this work, surrounded. To that end, the ceiling, floor and walls are blackened, architectural boundaries are blurred, and the muscular fabrications of vast skeins of resinous paint are suspended from the ceiling, like slices-of-space. Bilu takes big slabs of material as far out as he can go, and then says, like a cosmic Jester: one of the nicest things about this work is that it finishes with the fingertips. Endless patient tiny touches.

Asher Bilu’s work begins and ends with wonder and joy. In reality however, there is no end. Only pauses, between creative breaths. Every work, no matter how huge, whether two or three dimensional, whether black and white, or chromatic, or gold, is a sequence in the whole, which will take a lifetime to finish.

Bilu’s purpose is to express the infinite, knowing full well that his gestures are only human and therefore, always limited. His art is a thank you for life itself, for the eyes, to see and the hands, to make.