BY David Bussel in Reviews | 07 JUN 97
Featured in
Issue 35

Angela Bulloch

BY David Bussel in Reviews | 07 JUN 97

The most discreet sculpture in Angela Bulloch's exhibition was under the artist's fingernails. For the show, Bulloch (along with her gallerists), was sporting the piece Working Manicure (1997), described as 'nail varnish in black and natural'. The artist had gone to a nail salon but instead of getting a traditional French manicure ­ a clear lacquered nail with white varnish underneath the tip ­ she asked for the manicurist's worst nightmare: dirty nails ­ or rather, a simulation thereof.

In Working Manicure, Bulloch questions modes of artistic production, authorship and originality: the work was made by a manicurist, authored by the artist, and can be reproduced endlessly. It is also a clever mockery of art-making itself, because here a work of art is defined as the figurative residue of an artist's efforts: a conceptual sculpture made from the remains (dirt under the nails) of traditional artist's labour. What is compelling about this sculpture is its humorous conflation of prescriptive aesthetics (the manicure) with artistic labour.

The works in the gallery follow the same logic as the nail sculpture: they demand the physical intervention of a participant, a human trigger. Dye Hair Sound Mat (1996) is a viewer-activated sound piece. By simply walking into the gallery the viewer activates pressure sensors underneath the doormat which trigger a computer-generated voice. What we hear is a newspaper account of the plans carried out in a murder-suicide pact by a psychotic group of disaffected teenagers. One of the items on the list is 'dye hair black'. By entering the space of the gallery, one is immediately and involuntarily exposed to the structure of the entire show.

In Work Bench (1996), we are confronted by a red-cushioned rectangular seat, the length of the artist's body. To the left above it, attached to the wall, is a gallery telephone that has been coated in brown plasticine. On the floor to the right is a metal bowl and pump, which circulates muddy water through a tube. When the viewer sits down ­ as instructed ­ a trigger forces the brown water through the tube into an empty bowl. Thus a normally relaxing experience ­ sitting or reclining in a museum before a work of art ­ suddenly becomes a disconcerting one when 'dirty' water rushes into the bowl or the plasticine-caked telephone rings: deep in shit, abjection sets in.

In opposition to the bench piece, Table Loop (1996) provides all the comfort one could ask for in a gallery space: a giant red beanbag doughnut from the 'happy sack' series appointed with a lemon yellow circular table in its hole. Table Loop is about inclusion, leisure and social exchange within the context of the art gallery.

With A Choice of Evils (1996), the viewer is paradoxically entrapped by the notion of choice or free-will, or rather the artist's notion of it. The work consists of a pair of identical small, white tables, each furnished with identical lamps illuminating identical white microwave food containers sitting side-by-side. The lamps switch on and off in turn. As the title suggests, there is no choice between these objects ­ whether it be food or furniture ­ there is only the repetition of sameness in the guise of marginal difference. The strict formal economy of the work (everything is white and identically paired) mirrors the face of anonymous consumer culture.

Above all, the work illustrates Bulloch's desire to provide choice. Although working within the confines of a Conceptual vernacular, she wants to give the viewer a sense of agency in 'occasioning' the piece, of re-defining its meaning through their own subjectivity. And, as with all of Bulloch's sculptures, the viewer becomes the activator, making an intervention of some kind through the structure provided by the work itself within the context of the gallery. As such, the work becomes a kind of democratic collaboration of action and choice between Bulloch and her audience.