After Columbus stumbled upon an unexpected continent, considerably altering Europe’s knowledge of space, Charles V of Spain adorned the pillars of Hercules in his coat of arms – symbolizing the borders of the (old) world – with a scroll bearing the motto plus ultra, ‘further beyond’. His empire had been extended past the limits of the known world, and it was his hope that it would keep growing forever. Expanding notions of space has long meant far more than merely increasing the scope of its three dimensions, as demonstrated since 2007 by Angela Bulloch’s series Night Skies. These computer-generated views of the night sky as seen from other planets strip Earth of its status as the centre of the universe. And they show the potential of virtual space to open up unknown perspectives – plus ultra.
In Bulloch’s exhibition In Virtual Vitro at Esther Schipper, this expansion was represented by the constellation Hercules as seen from a point in outer space. With small LEDs, it was embedded in one of the huge lengths of felt making up the Hercules Wall Hanging 008 (2014), attached to the wall just below the ceiling and flowing down onto the floor. Smaller hangings made of felt, paper and wood were attached to the other walls, while standing around the space were sculptures resembling pillars or totem poles (all 2014) consisting of superimposed rhomboids, completing Bulloch’s allusion to the pillars of Hercules. They pointed from real space out into virtuality, from the concrete exhibition space out into the endlessness of digital realms. To follow this movement, one had to consider the space in three successive ways.
At first, Bulloch’s presentation seemed like an an ensemble of autonomous works or an exhibition of classical modernist art, not least because the rhomboid sculptures recalled Constantin Brâncusi’s many-versioned Endless Column (1918–38). Close ties between the works soon became visible however. Rhomboids recurred as elements in the sculptures, in the patterns screen printed onto the large wall hangings, and in the digital cube pattern prints on the smaller wall hangings.
The colours beige, grey and dark blue were to be found in almost every work, so that on closer inspection the objects in the space became parts of an overall pattern, lending the show the character of an installation. Bulloch’s wall hangings echoed the so-called ‘departure from the picture’ from c.1960 in another way, too: the wooden frames on which the digital prints were fastened to the wall did not surround them as ‘pictures’; instead, the prints protruded from the wood-framed hollows into the space – hybrids of picture, sculpture and pattern elements. From this second way of seeing, as a repetitive pattern extending out all around, a third vision of the space emerged.
In this third stage, the space became a quasi-digital picture. The stepped pillars lost themselves in a kind of two-dimensional image with no material support. The colours applied in matte paint were also there in the cube patterns (actually flat, but suggesting three-dimensionality) on the wall hangings, causing the two groups of works to optically merge into a shared indeterminate spatial plane. This process of slippage banished real space. And at the same time it suggested the endlessness of space’s virtualization.
Bulloch began working on these latest pieces in 2013, after making digital avatars to accompany musicians on stage during a concert at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (The Wired Salutation, 2013, with David Grubbs). This coexistence of reality and virtuality was also on show here, where, in several other works like Elliptical Song Drawing Machine (2014) and Medium Music Listening Station: Rot Gelb Blau (2014), the other-worldly avatar of a gallery assistant explained the exhibition. Bulloch’s contemporary version of Brâncusi’s Endless Column in the gallery’s second room was far subtler than these works. Albeit not as amusing.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell