Asher Bilu produces paintings, sculptures, installations and works that blur the boundaries between them. These abstract works reflect his interest in light, music and science (particularly cosmology). His 1967 work Sculptron I has been called the first electronic sculpture exhibited in Australia. From 1982 to 2015, he also worked in feature film as a production designer for director Paul Cox.
Born in Israel in 1936, Bilu went to live on a kibbutz at the age of 14. This was a life-changing experience, cementing his need for self-expression and his passion for music. It was also where he began to draw and paint. It was during his compulsory army service that he made the commitment to become a visual artist. He said: ‘...wherever we were, I pulled out a pad and drew whatever I could see. I experienced a new sense of freedom, and came to accept that as a painter I was able to express feelings and ideas that I could not so easily do with music.’
Bilu is largely a self-taught artist whose work has always relied on experimentation. An abstract artist from the outset, he is attracted to the universality of the language of abstraction, and of music. Abstraction, for Bilu, offers ‘the freedom to explore the unknown’. He has a particular interest in the physicality of painting as well as the physical experience of light. His works across various mediums often incorporate luminal elements or use light to create an environment. Sound is another important component in many of his works.
Bilu arrived in Australia in December 1956, his parents and sister having emigrated earlier. He settled in Melbourne and began his career as an artist soon after, holding his first solo exhibition in 1959. In 1962, he moved to London, exhibiting there and in the Netherlands. He returned to Australia two years later and in 1965 won the Blake Prize for religious art for the painting I form light and create darkness: Isaiah 45:7.
In 1967 he and engineer Tim Berriman created Sculptron 1, exhibited at the Tolarno Galleries in Melbourne. Made from old TV tubes, it translated surrounding sounds into abstract patterns on eight small circular screens. ‘The idea was basically that I was making a visual-musical instrument,’ Bilu says. In reviewing the work, Patrick McCaughey wrote in the Age on 11 July 1967: ‘Nothing in Australian sculpture could have prepared us for this remarkable and exciting event … It deserves no other assessment than as a contribution to one of the central developments of 20th-century art: kinetic art.’
Bilu’s passion for experimentation and his deeply sincere aesthetic philosophy steeped in the mysticism of Eastern tradition resulted in a series of works created in the 1970s which utilised a painstaking technique of blending textures and colours, employing pure pigments and raised surfaces. The two-dimensional surface plane was abandoned, replaced by a rich, dazzling and intricate three-dimensional web of fragmented plywood shapes, resembling the scattered remnants of a labyrinthine, Escherian jigsaw puzzle.
One such work, Bilu’s painting in the Art Gallery of NSW collection, Soundscape, was shown in his 1979 exhibition Infinities, held at Melbourne’s Realities Gallery. Bilu presented eight monumental pieces in a darkened shrine-like gallery space, with the works theatrically lit by spotlights to accentuate the strong shadows cast by the multiple layers of elaborate fretted plywood. The space was further enhanced by the accompanying electronic music, composed and performed by the artist, which played throughout the gallery space, creating an enveloping experience with a Zen-like contemplative calm.
Interactivity and immersion are elements in some of Bilu’s most ambitious later works, including Amaze, which he describes as a sculpture made of paint or a walk-through painting. Three metres high and over 50 metres long, it involved forms made from approximately a tonne of pure paint hanging by wires from the ceiling. It was created for the opening of the United Artists Gallery in 1982, a co-operative venture of which Bilu was a founding member, which aimed ‘to provide an art experience that reached viewers across the whole range from the art uneducated to the cognoscenti and to demonstrate that “art” and “the public” were not mutually exclusive’.
For the 1992 Melbourne Festival, he invited the public to interact with 15 tonnes of shredded paper under UV light in the work Escape to again create an effect akin to being inside one of his paintings. Said Bilu in 2014 in an interview for the Art Gallery of NSW archive:
Basically I know that I want my painting to live, to emanate something that makes you feel it is alive. That’s the challenge.