Bad Luck Rock
16 November 2023 – 6 January 2024
Josh Lilley is pleased to present Bad Luck Rock the first European solo exhibition of artist Sula Bermúdez-Silverman (b. 1993, New York).
Sula Bermúdez-Silverman chips away at the sedimentary layers of history’s fables to expose slippages and shed light on the shadows. Drawing on a vast pool of documentary research, her sculpture and installation create a multi-dimensional map, across time and space, where material forms and symbolic gestures lead us to tacit, pathological systems of power.
For her gallery debut, Bermúdez-Silverman turns to the sociological history of colouration as a touchstone. Examining the supply and distribution of colour pigments and processes over centuries, Bermúdez-Silverman employs its raw material essences, in the form of ores and dyes, to create a complex and intersectional story of bioprospecting and colonial oppression.
This spectral journey starts with a theropod - literally translated to mean ‘beast footed’ - clasping a ball. Derived from representations in ancient Chinese mythology to symbolise the Emperor’s protection of knowledge, the ‘ball-and-claw’ fitting was appropriated into the European decorative arts in the early 18th century as a result of maritime trading. In Bermúdez-Silverman’s interpretation, the ball holds a slither of cinnabar, the mineral used in the creation of vermillion. First mined in Spain by prisoners of the Roman empire, the ore’s toxicity meant such work was tantamount to a death sentence. Its product, vermillion, was used between antiquity and the 19th century and was synonymous with imperial forces; reserved for the decoration of luxurious villas, war victors, aristocratic tombs and royal correspondence. Preserved in glass and rubber like a relic from history, Bermúdez-Silverman offers up a world of political hierarchies and transgressions, in a single, fragile material.
Reaching further into the quagmire of the colonial economy, Bermúdez-Silverman turns to uranium, for the first time crafting works using uranium glass. Discovered in 1789 in the present-day Czech Republic, uranium is one of the world’s most pernicious geopolitical substances; its mining closely linked to colonial oppression and its use bound to the atomic bomb. Disproportionately extracted from the native lands of Indigenous communities including the U.S, Canada, Puerto Rico, Australia, Portugal and the Democratic Republic of Congo, tested on these same lands and further weaponized by global imperial forces; uranium is the lynchpin of systemic nuclear colonialism. Drawing through its original and ongoing use as a glass colorant, Bermúdez-Silverman uses the fluorescent substance to, quite literally, illuminate these dictatorial histories.
Taking the form of a child-sized horse saddle, gold-gilded uranium glass blends with mythologies surrounding the European conquest of the Americas, interlinking two tales of colonial corruption. Referencing the Spanish invasion of the 16th century of mounted conquistadors, and its subsequent absorption into folklore as the act of centaurian creatures; the small saddle, slightly disproportionate to its mount, becomes a proxy for childhood wonderment. Pointing to the power of narrative to conflate fact and fantasy, the saddle exists in a state of arrested development, offering us pause to consider the re-telling of these stories. Two tangential works, where uranium glass pushes through a mess of horse stirrups further fragment the narrative, providing alternative entry points for (re)discovery. Bulging through the contraptions, constricted by the metal armature, the glass contorts as if trying to escape the confines of its forces. Deeply sensual and figurative in their form, these works bring together economic, racial, gender and political stories where they intersect.
Continuing her exploration of colour as a catalytic force, a series of tinted lion paws adorn the gallery space, recalling the design motifs of Queen Anne era furniture. Adapted from the Chinese ‘ball-and-claw’ to become a symbol of the British empire, Bermúdez-Silverman traces the expansion of European trade with Asia and a colonial fascination with the ‘Exotic Far East’. Crafted from uranium glass and irradiated with UV light, each paw is stripped of its function, rendered an artifact of abstract curiosity. Calling to mind the expatriated cultural fragments found in museums across the world, some of these objects have been ‘fixed’, filled in with substitute compounds as if to conceal their heritage, or deceive their audience. Resin and sugar are brought in to plug the holes, substances inextricably linked to other colonial narratives. With sleight of hand, Bermúdez-Silverman once again turns the narrative on its head, inviting us to question the conditions under which such objects come into orbit.
A series of peepholes - small windows cast in uranium or tinted glass - capture recurrent motifs within the exhibition, operating as a kind of embedded narrative. In one we see a lion monument clutching a ball, in another, microscopic images of biological viruses. Quarantining these seemingly disparate objects for all to see, Bermúdez-Silverman manifests the uncomfortable paradigms which shape our understanding of the world.
Bermúdez-Silverman takes the materials and forms which are overlooked and yet literally sustain us - those that hold our weight, support our whims, and frame our vistas. Through deft subversion, material intervention and deconstructive techniques, she confounds their place in history and encourages their reappraisal, as apparatus of power. Ones that can quickly shatter, fade or dilute, or ones that can glow through black light.