IT’S THE OPENING day of the first edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, and not even the morning’s ferocious black rainstorms have dampened the zeal of the international art fair’s followers. At Simon Lee Gallery on Pedder Street, however, Canadian-born British artist Angela Bulloch is hoping that her hair will dry. We’re sitting among the displays of her first exhibition in Hong Kong, Universal Mineral.
The five pieces on show represent two fields of Bulloch’s output, her work in sculpture and with animated light programmes. On one wall is Aquarius Pegasus, an electronic simulation of the night sky, made in 2012 of black felt with a metal framework and LED installation for the stars. It’s one of a number of similar works, of which the most notable covered the interior dome of the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, for theanyspacewhatever exhibition in 2008.
Bulloch rose to prominence as part of the Damien Hirst-led Freeze generation of young British artists who first exhibited together in 1988, when she distinguished herself by avoiding the shock tactics used by many of her contemporaries in their work. She is known for her focus on systems, patterns and rules, and explains that for each of her Night Sky pieces, she begins with a 3D map of the universe. The artist then extrapolates her point of view to an area of space that cannot be seen from Earth: in this case, towards the constellations of Aquarius and Pegasus. “I usually choose an extra-terrestrial position, because these are the places we can’t go, but we’d like to see what it looks like around Mars… A lot of the elements within the work are to do with [perspective] and place, because that’s what I find to be interesting,” Bulloch says, “I’m not trying to make a simulation of something we can all the time see. I’m trying to imagine something [we can’t].”
The artist’s interest in subverting ordered systems is visible too in her Pixel Boxes, which are the most familiar component of her work. She made the first of these animated light cubes in 2000 with the simple and yet, in her own words, perverse idea of making a pixel big. Photographers, she explains, like to have as many pixels per frame as possible for high-definition images: “The progression is about making something more accurate, and having more memory. I went the other way and made it less…The initial thing was to have an electronic device that could be controlled. [There was] this notion of a pixel, the smallest element of a picture, but made into a fairly large object.”
Of the four on display in the gallery, the earliest work, from 2010, is Mondrian Corian (blue). Suspended from the ceiling with black textile straps, it represents Bulloch’s first use of the material corian in her Pixel Boxes, which have also been made of wood, copper, aluminium and perspex. Unlike the others on show, it’s not animated and uses only blue lamps instead of a red, green and blue (RGB) lighting system. The piece references the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, whose most famous paintings concern grids of black lines and primary colours.
Bulloch’s three other works, from 2013, sit on the gallery floor. They are Single Yellow, Single Ice and Double Ice. The last piece is made up of two translucent (Glacier Ice) Pixel Boxes side by side, and we can see the lights mixing inside the cube. Single Yellow, meanwhile, is opaque yellow corian with a screen on the front like a television, through which we can see the light animation. It seems to reference the earliest Pixel Boxes, which were made of beech wood and glass. Those were really images that functioned like pixels, Bulloch says. The current pieces, with their visible mechanics, are more sculptural and abstract.
Single Yellow uses a red, yellow and blue (RYB) lighting system, which means it’s impossible for the cube to produce white light (for which it needs RGB). The artist also plays with the memory of the changing light animation, at one frame per second, to produce deliberate errors. These “mistakes” recur in Bulloch’s work and are fundamental to her outlook as an artist. She sees colour as “a language, like any other” and recognises the “utopian idea of a system that functions very well”. To make a mistake is to affect the legibility of that language, and to reveal how provocative a wrong shift can be.
Simon Lee Gallery, in a release, highlights Bulloch’s focus on “the creative territory between mathematics and aesthetics”. And we can’t help but wonder how advances in technology have impacted her body of work. Bulloch says, “I don’t work alongside developments in technology, because my purposes are different. I’m making an artwork that’s an idea turned into a form: a pixel is a notion, it’s not really an object.”
At Art Basel, Bulloch presented one of her Drawing Machines. These form another strand of the artist’s work and rely on a modest conceit: a machine draws lines on the wall according to some external stimulus. She explains that they normally respond to simple things, like sound or the rhythm of someone sitting down or standing up in front of the piece.
For Short Big Yellow Drawing Machine, Bulloch asked George Van Dam, a Belgian composer, to write and perform violin music with electronic sounds. It was produced on a yellow vinyl record (Short Big Drama), which is linked to the machine, so the music becomes the score for the drawing. The different yellow parts are visually connected while, through the soundtrack, Bulloch also explores the continuity between violin bow and string, stylus and groove, and pen and paper.