TIME Magazine (2005)

TIME MAGAZINE May 2 2005/No.17
By Michael Fitzgerald
Arts Editor

Film’s Man of Flowers

Australian painter and sculptor Asher Bilu is the force behind director Paul Cox’s interior world.

Are Australian films beginning to look a little malnourished? In last year’s Tom White and this season’s Three Dollars, a middle-class family man plummets to the poverty line, frequenting soup kitchens and rummaging through bins for food – in fact, the best scene in the latter movie involves the family fighting over a packet of Edam cheese. But elsewhere, it’s slim pickings emotionally. In comparison, the films of Dutch-born director Paul Cox are like full-blown dinner parties overflowing with music and wine – a little rich, perhaps, but preferable to the anorexic fare currently on offer.

A wealthy floral arranger who pays an artist’s model to strip for him, a classical composer deserted by his wife, and a blind cactus grower are but some of the characters you might have met in a Paul Cox film. For two decade and more, these have stimulated art-house audiences as much as they have scared the multiplexes. For the best of them (Man of Flowers, Cactus, Vincent) Asher Bilu has provided the objets d’art. As Cox’s regular production designer through the ‘80’s, the Israeli-born painter and sculptor helped fashion those films’ gorgeous interiors, giving over his Melbourne house to the elderly floral arranger, discovering a succulent wonderland in the Dandenong Ranges, and painting a room of sunflower-bright Van Goghs. Now, with Human Touch, Bilu’s return to the screen after more than a decade has resulted in Cox’s richest film in years.

Sense and sensibility are everything for angel-voiced chorister Anna (Jacqueline McKenzie) and her artist husband (Aaron Blabey), who are struggling to maintain sexual intimacy. To test their fidelity, Cox and Bilu have furnished a many-textured world, from a bohemian warehouse to the lush gardens of an eccentric philanthropist (Chris Haywood) who has Anna model for him, to the stalactite caves of the South of France, where the couple holiday to save their marriage. But most extraordinary is an art work Bilu, 68, has sculpted, and which stands at the centre of the film. Created with lighting designer Philip Lethlean, Explanandum is a 10-sq-m jungle of glowing wire mesh through which Cox views his characters as they ponder the meaning of life. Not only is it a gobsmackingly good work in its own right, it provides the film with a powerful metaphor for “the interior unknowns,” says Cox, “that we all carry.”

Its creator in the film is Ouspensky (Terry Norris), a volcanic artist who looks and behaves suspiciously like Bilu himself. The bespectacled Ouspensky is forever ranting against art bureaucrats who refuse to hang his huge, unwieldy pieces. And while the Blake Prize-winning Bilu has been collected by the National Galleries of Victoria and Australia and Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, he too knows the disappointment of having work in storage. “I think Asher’s a great artist,” says Cox, “and totally unknown.” Only a year after his painting I Form Light and Create Darkness – Isaiah 45:7 took out the religious art award in 1965, Bilu was confined to a footnote in Robert Hughes’s The Art of Australia.

Cox wonders if his work is “too godly.” Certainly it’s cosmic. Of Bilu’s 1987 painting series, Brett Whiteley wrote: “Although these works are not induced by marijuana they do produce the same sense of ‘expandingness’ that hallucinogens do.” In 1982, Bilu fashioned a 56-m-long curtain of paint Amaze, a Van Gogh-inspired journey from night to day that also features in Human Touch. Says Bilu: “It’s like you’re inside Vincent’s brain.”

Such work might have scared off curators, but not Cox. The filmmaker first invited Bilu to work on 1983’s Man of Flowers “because he’s got vision.” That was immediately apparent, with then Los Angeles Times describing Bilu’s art direction as “like another character” in the film. Bilu likens working within Cox’s small team to playing chamber music. But throughout the 90’s, the artist preferred to go solo. There was Escape, his 7-ton pile of paper offcuts for the 1992 Melbourne Festival, and 1997’s World Without End, his 5-m-high Holocaust memorial of white-painted wood splints. It was an installation of Explanandum in 2002 that brought Bilu back into Cox’s orbit. The filmmaker was already penning a script inspired by caves he had visited in the South of France. With Explanandum, Cox found his metaphor: “It is huge and wonderful and amazing.”

And growing. Next year Bilu hopes to create another painted sculpture, this time for the Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne. “It’s going to be huge,” says Bilu. “I’m just bracing myself.” So, too, might audiences. When brought to the light, his preternatural sculptures speak with cosmic force.

Caption: TRANSFORMING. Bilu’s sculpture puts the lives of Cox’s characters into perspective.
Anna & David
Caption: TOUCH. Blabey & McKenzie try to connect.
Caption: TOUR DE FORCE. Norris as Asher’s alter ego.