Sitting improbably on the front lawn of Cambridge's august Fitzwilliam Museum, the no-nonsense temporary space Harty + Harty have designed for the Institute of Visual Culture is a stylish take on the kind of pre-fab warehouses found on industrial estates, used to store cordless drills and peeled prawns. With the electricity off, Angela Bulloch's 'Horizontal Technicolor', the Institute's inaugural show (and the title of the work included) does little to dispel this impression. The artist has stacked 32 boxes four high to form a wall at the far end of the gallery. It's as if the rest of the space is expecting the next lorry-load. The gallery brochure-cum-exhibition catalogue also contributes to this light industrial ambience: instead of lush images of their illuminated fronts, we're teased with dry photos of the boxes' backs and their inner circuitry. It could be illustrating a Swedish shelving system.
Formally speaking, Bulloch's light units are simplicity itself. Each is a cube (50 Y´ 50 Y´ 50 cm) made of ply, with the exception of the backs, which are made of aluminium, and the fronts, which are double-glazed. The workings, however - which Bulloch has laid bare with a degree of care bordering on fetishization - undermine the units' relation to Donald Judd's 'primary structures'. Three 14-watt fluorescent tubes in red, green and blue run diagonally behind the two panes of translucent glass. These are connected to a couple of circuitry units. Although they are made specifically for Bulloch's lightboxes, she has designed them to resemble mass-produced goods: they are printed with the name of the appliance (Pixel Box - dmx module), its specifications and serial code, the copyright details ('©Angela Bulloch and Holger Friese Kommunikation') and their place of manufacture ('Made in Germany'). They look as if they were lifted from the back of a Marshall amp and seem to allude to the rather sexy world that those amps represent.
The structural simplicity of the boxes is matched only by the complexity of their colour effects. Dimmers determine the luminosity of the red, blue and green tubes. Each tube is capable of 256 levels of brightness, which means each Pixel Box is capable of mixing a staggering 16.7 million colours (256 Y´ 256 Y´ 256), most of which cannot be distinguished by the human eye. Colour changes in Horizontal Technicolor occur in intervals of just under a second, like the rhythm of most dance music, matching the average beat of the human heart. In this way we're made to feel almost physically connected to the piece, as we are with sound in a nightclub; its 'beat', though, is soft, ambient and organic, since generally only a few cubes change colour at a time. (The piece does actually have a soundtrack - a dark, slow electronic composition by David Grubbs - but it is without rhythm.)These natural qualities are also evoked by the smoothness of the colour changes, caused by a certain level of inertia between tubes and dimmers, and the muteness of the hues. Rarely are the colours primary or secondary. Often they are hues, like the mysterious colours of bruises, and with names you never knew existed. Occasionally these slow fluctuations are interrupted by abrupt, violent changes involving a majority of the lightboxes simultaneously and dramatic colour shifts, an effect that evokes a lightning strike in a humid sky.
Considered optically, Horizontal Technicolor seems to have evolved, electronically, from Formalist painting, with its emphatic frontal plane, its concern with colour relationships, and its apparent abstraction; and yet, the formation of the boxes equally evokes a Cinemascope screen, providing a clue to the work's Conceptual identity. It turns out that every lightbox is in effect a massive pixel, and that the 32 pixels form an extremely low-definition monitor. It turns out too that the seemingly abstract colour patterns in fact represent film footage simplified to the point of inscrutability. The film material Bulloch plays through this 'monitor' is a 16-minute loop from two sources: the first is a radical re-edit of the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the second is footage the artist took in Death Valley, where Michelangelo Antonioni shot the climactic scene of Zabriskie Point (1970).
By drastically expanding the scale of information, while simultaneously diminishing its density, Bulloch has performed an act of semiotic alchemy in which abstract and photographic markers - normally thought antithetical - are rendered absolutely relative and indivisible. The effect of collapsing the one into the other is profound and alienating: it seems to shatter our means of ordering our understanding of the world. No wonder, then, that both film segments generating Bulloch's otherwise ravishing and hedonistic light show deal in catastrophes - one (Zabriskie Point) a massive explosion; the other (2001) a collision on a cosmic scale.
First published in Issue 71