Spacetime: Abstraction on the Cosmic Frontier
Dr Jacqui Durrant
Contemplation of the night sky is one of the most fundamental human experiences, binding all people across space and time. The sheer size of the cosmos takes us to the edge of human comprehension. We recognise that there is something more than what we can perceive – unknown, and perhaps unknowable, but not a void. The cosmos inspires us to examine the nature of existence. It feeds our un-ending desire to know not only about ‘what’s out there,’ but to extend our knowledge in every direction. And no one can escape its beauty.
Asher Bilu’s exhibition Spacetime has been created in this ‘spirit of the night sky’. For Bilu, the cosmos is an ambiguous and irresistible aesthetic; but more significantly, a metaphor for all kinds of frontiers, whether it is the cusp of scientific knowledge, or that which lies between what we can and cannot know about the natural world, about each other, and even ourselves.
The frontier realm is also where artists dwell; and of all visual artists, it is the region in which abstractionists like Bilu are most naturally at home. The process by which an abstractionist can breathe life into a painting without the aid of literal depiction, and of how the human mind translates combinations of shape and colour into meaning and emotion, is art’s greatest mystery. For Bilu, this process forms the challenge which he has pursued for over 50 years: ‘to do something that’s abstract, and yet speaks to you. It should say something. It has to “work”.’
On an immediate level, the paintings in Spacetime ‘work’ because everyone has personal experiences of the night sky. Bilu recounts two of his own, diametrically opposed and yet both overwhelmingly positive: As a young man undertaking national service with the Israeli army, he overcame his instinctive fear of the night during night training excercises, learning that, ‘there is no absolute darkness. You can bend the night your way. … I’m talking about using the night to your advantage, and not be frightened. And that metaphor carries true, for not being frightened of anything.’ However, years later Bilu experienced something profoundly different on a cold, clear Autumn night at Mount Buffalo in North East Victoria: ‘I’d never seen a starry night like that night,’ he recalls. ‘And this time I was scared. I felt so intimidated… so much in awe; almost uncomfortably. You know, like, How much awe can you absorb? How much can you take? I was so humbled, to the point of being scared… When you think we’re in one of the smallest galaxies in the universe; that there’s so much more out there.’ These two notions – of being humbled, and yet unafraid – are sensibilities which permeate all of the paintings in Spacetime.
However, it is cosmological science rather than direct personal experience from which Bilu now derives his principle ‘artistic food.’ He regards cosmology as being on the ‘edge of knowledge’, taking in all of the mathematics, physics and logical thought that humans can muster, and he reserves his greatest passion for the facts of science so vast, infinite or seemingly impossible, that they have us struggling merely to comprehend. Bilu offers examples drawn from Bryan Gaesler’s Extreme Cosmos (2011): Areas in the universe that are millions of light years of near absolute vacuum, with merely a stray atom here or there. Stars that are only one cubic centrimetre of substance, but so dense that they weigh more than the entire human race. Light that has been travelling for 13 billion light years, from a distant star that may no longer even exist. ‘I don’t know the difference between millions, billions and trillions,’ says Bilu, ‘So can you imagine objects in the sky 200 times bigger than the sun? Can you imagine anything like that? And it’s somewhere, in the universe.’
At the uppermost limits of cosmological science lies the idea that there are universes other than our own, a concept which has inspired Bilu’s Multiverse (2011). ‘The idea of the multiverse – the idea that there are other universes – is very appealing,’ enthuses Bilu. ‘Why should there be only one? Maybe the singularity of this one big bang is one of many big bangs.’ Accordingly, Multiverse is a painting of innumerate constellations and concentricities, rendered in multiple, over-lapping layers; each one intersected by composed space. The painting is intended as a ‘section of,’ in exactly the same manner as, when looking at the night sky, our view of the universe is merely represented by what we can see of our own tiny galaxy. As with other works, including those in the Heavens series, Multiverse is a window looking onto infinity. While their visual detail is immense, Bilu offers of his paintings, ‘it’s what you don’t see that matters.’
That cosmology continually arrives at revelatory facts about the universe that indicate the extent to which we will never fully know the universe, is a paradox which Bilu enjoys: ‘I love this way of thinking. How do you ever prove that there is another universe besides ours when you can’t begin to get to the edge of this universe, even though logically – if there is such a thing as logic when it comes to these kinds of big questions – it makes sense?’ He describes this paradox in the title of one painting as The Mystery of the Known (2000). And once again, Bilu is humbled, ‘because we as human beings, with all our greed and curiosity – we want to touch, we want to feel, we want to possess; but this is beyond all that.’
The cosmos is an apt visual metaphor for so much that is beyond our immediate reach. In the ‘installation’ Infinity (1995), myriad golden-orbed solar-systems, forming constellation upon constellation, could equally be atoms and molecules – the building blocks of life. This is ‘the mystery of the big and the small … of being alive and seeing little lives,’ says Bilu. Infinity speaks of matter, endlessly inter-, dis-, and reconnecting, like the teeth on the watchmaker’s cogs of Bilu’s early sculpture Timepiece (1964), or the elliptical geometry seen in The Journey (1979).
Bilu’s house is filled with the material evidence of his passion for nature; and more specifically, the geometry of nature, which he finds compelling in its simplicity and as an expression of the absolute. His hand runs through a bowl filled with hundreds of perfectly uniform, tiny white spiral seashells: ‘I mean, just look at these. Incrrrrredible.’ He holds up a curious black block, uniformly perforated with a square mesh about the size of fly-screen. After insisting that those around him guess at its identity, he reveals it as a piece of burnt wood in which water over time has washed away the soft fibres to reveal an underlying, flawlessly divided structure: ‘A friend picked it up in a river in Gippsland. Ammmazing.’ It is appropriate that Bilu’s one concession to the figurative is a drawing of his one-time ‘pet’ plant Charlie Cactus (1974) that depicts the concentric rings of spines, themselves a manifestation of unseen and mysterious natural forces.
Bilu’s chosen path of abstraction is egalitarian in spirit. A self-taught artist, he champions the innate rather than scholarly appreciation of art, insisting that, ‘You can never underestimate anyone – a child, or any person.’ For Bilu, abstraction means being able to ‘push the work to that edge where you can create form, shape, colour, or whatever, and stop before it becomes recognisable, to maintain the ambiguity so that you can leave it to the viewer to associate in any way they wish.’ Bilu refuses to create art which self-prescribes the manner in which it is to be read, and so we are left to enjoy interpretive liberty. More than perhaps any of Bilu’s efforts, it is his mammoth painting Heavens (2006) that continually fosters the most joyous expressions of free interpretation.
Heavens comprises 43 panels, each the size of a large lounge room wall, suspended from the ceiling as one continuous painting which ribbons back and forth for 173 metres. Made solely of paint (a flexible, self-supporting polymer resin mixed with pigments), Heavens is a painting through which one literally walks. Despite its obvious references to the night sky, the deeper we wander into Heavens, the more we are prone to engage in personal interpretations: A miner said it resembled walls of crystals found deep underground; a diver was reminded of the forests of giant kelp found in the waters off Tasmania. Children adore Heavens purely as a sensory experience. As with those who entered Bilu’s earlier spiral walk-through painting Amaze (1982), Heavens’ perforated surface allows us to catch glimpses of others walking through different parts of the painting. They are wearing involuntary smiles of awe and delight. Like us, they feel uplifted. It all makes Bilu immensely happy.
The works contained in Asher Bilu’s Spacetime are, true to the nature of their inspiration, expansive – both in scope and spirit. Bilu is ignited by the cosmos as a source of creativity; and in cosmological science – with its innovative hypothesising and constant toying with the ‘ifs, the buts, and the maybes’ – he finds both evidence of the amazing times in which we live, and of our good fortune in living them. Bilu’s works enthrall us with their beauty and detail; and above all, they possess an intrinsic generosity. He is comfortable with the mysteries of the universe, and the mysteries of life. While Bilu is inspired by the way in which scientific curiosity pushes us forward into what amounts to an artistic realm, Spacetime leads us to the view that expecting to know everything is simply a greedy proposition. ‘You can’t have it all,’ says Bilu, ‘You just can’t. So be happy with the mystery, and with what you’ve got.’
All quotes from Asher Bilu appear in inverted commas, taken from an interview he gave on 23 January 2012.