Angela Bulloch is interested in the systems, structures, and codes present in society, mainly those that tell us about social behavior and control. Yet this description is too frigid; it is too cold for an artist who makes such seductive, rich, and subtle works of art. At first glance Bulloch’s work seems minimalistic and abstract, but on closer inspection it turns out to be quite witty and intellectually stimulating. She is a complex artist whose oeuvre has many different aspects, all of which are represented in her solo exhibition in Witte de With in Rotterdam. This cross-section of Bulloch’s work to date focuses on three types of works, namely her monumental wall paintings, colorful pixel installations, and her interactive drawing machines.
The installation on the first floor emphasizes the interactive and theatrical element of Bulloch’s work. These characteristics are already hinted at in the exhibition’s title: SHORT BIG DRAMA. Interactivity is most clearly present in Bulloch’s drawing machines, three of which are exhibited. A computer-operated construction of motors and pulleys moves a pencil across the wall. They follow a programmed logic that is triggered and altered by sounds or pressure switches in the spectator’s bench. The presence of the audience slightly changes the outcome of the drawing, although viewers’ ability to influence the end result is very limited. The machines don’t really care about what the public wants them to do: the sense of being in control that the audience feels is ultimately just an illusion.
Angela Bulloch, Gang Of Four Blue: Print No. 11, 2004, 4 DMX, 1 black box module, 1photographic print on transparent plastic, diffusion foil, 2 sheets of glass, frame; Courtesy of the artist & Collection Carlos Vallejo
Probably the most seductive and theatrical of Bulloch’s artworks are the Pixel Boxes she has been creating since the early 2000s. These are digitally controlled light boxes measuring approximately 20 inches (50cm) cubed, each with one glowing side. They are constructed from luminous tubes and an electronic control unit housed within an industrially produced wooden or metal casing. Each box is able to light up in 16 million different colors. With these boxes she creates different structures. Sometimes they are stacked into towers or monumental screens; sometimes single boxes are scattered across the room. Describing them in words inevitably makes the boxes sound way too industrial and technical for the gentle shine and subdued atmosphere they generate. The boxes gradually change colors, and as they change individually following different rhythms they form calm tranquil sequences to mesmerizing effect. The changing color compositions seem abstract and sometimes are, but often they are pixels taken from cinema or television. One of the smallest pixel box works in the show is Tv Series Talking Movies 4A: 4U from 2003. It comprises one single box showing the pixel that is four across and four up in a BBC World TV program. This isolated and enlarged pixel is unable to convey any information and in this form is just an empty piece of code. Bulloch’s banal figuration of television is subtly deconstructed into mesmerizing abstraction. The boxes’ aesthetic aspect is foregrounded in a work that shows the artist’s subtle sense of humor. Arranged facing upwards in a square on the ground, the boxes recall 80s discotheque dance floors, something Bulloch acknowledges in her recent Disco: 18. A lingering soundtrack built from disco samples accompanies pulsating blocks which can’t be mounted for a dance – they can only be looked at.
Angela Bulloch, Cosa Nostra, 2011, Wall painting, dimensions variable; Photo: © Carsten Eisfeld. Installation view at Information, Manifesto, Rules And Other Leaks..., Berlinische Galerie, Berlin; Courtesy the artist & Esther Schipper.
Another important part of Bulloch’s oeuvre is her Rules series, which fills the upper floor of the exhibition. This series, which was started in 1993, consists of a collection of rules and instructions that have been gathered from a wide variety of sources. Bulloch has even made rules for the rules series, to guarantee their existence as art. In a light-hearted way the collected rules show how we organize our social surroundings and try to get a grip on everything. The authority these rules usually have is gone in this gallery context and viewers get a fresh look at them. Sometimes they become really absurd and funny (some of them just are, like, rules for freestyle wrestling), but at times they make us aware of their limiting nature and the control they have over us (like rules meant to prevent terrorism that limit our personal freedoms). At Witte de With, Bulloch has made murals built up from different types of quotes, rules, and lists in compositions reminiscent of Dada or constructivist graphic design. The first of these works you encounter when entering the upper floor is Rules For An Understanding Of Conceptual Art from 2000. It’s a list of rules that is supposed to help you understand the complex and intellectual genre of conceptual art. Amongst serious and intelligent observations about conceptual art are tips like point 16: “Conceptual artists usually had beards”. This is the type of lightness Bulloch manages to maintain throughout her intelligent works.
By highlighting three of the most important sides of Angela Bulloch’s work, Witte de With has managed to present a engaging overview of the artist’s rich body of work to date. It covers the most important aspects of her work and manages to bring them all together in one coherent exhibition. SHORT BIG DRAMA is amusing, aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually teasing.
(Image at top: Angela Bulloch, Feeling, Exploring and Describing a Fragrance, 2011; Courtesy de kunstenaar & Esther Schipper)