REVIEW: Stoned Apes and Good Vibrations: The Work of Josef Bull

Stoned Apes and Good Vibrations: The Work of Josef Bull
by Aviram Yap, Guest Contributor (

VIDEO: Josef Bull – Full Body Didgeridoo from Josef Bull on Vimeo.

Josef Bull’s latest exhibition is psychedelic, mind-bending, and as scientific as ever. In conjunction with the opening of his exhibition Casa Piramidal, this past weekend at Bushwick’s Jackie Klempay Gallery, Bull organized a performance with his PVC-pipe Didgeridoo sculpture, which enables full-body sound bathing for participating audience members, featuring musician AJ Block.

Bull weaves a fine line throughout his examination of spiritual phenomenon conducted in domestic environments.  He takes easily dismissible subject matter, such as the didgeridoo or DIY culture, and tweaks it just enough to make you wonder if Bull is critical of, or embracing of, this mash of cultures on display. People current on druggie-hippie-rave culture understand that this group has wholeheartedly embraced the “didge,” instantly transforming an Aboriginal Australian wind instrument into an object of controversy.

When asked about his choice of subject matter, Bull responded by saying, “I like the didgeridoo as a ‘material’ because it’s so hated. Didgeridoo players are hated! Jim who I collaborate with in Sweden regularly has experienced people spitting and shouting at him because of their hatred for the didgeridoo. It’s insane. I’m interested in these cliche spiritual and often mass produced attributes. Like didges and hippie shirts from nepal. I like ‘low’ materials and to see how they transform with different contexts. The cool thing though is that every didgeridoo player I’ve met through the project this far has been anything but cliche and incredibly interesting and intelligent.”

Following Bull’s explanation, it should be made clear that his didges are anything but hated. Bull succeeds at taking despised subject matter, extracting the essence, and producing an inquisitive object that embodies any relevant attributes it may possess.  Indeed it takes real skill to be able to turn something so hated into high art.

The first major attribute setting it apart from the hippie didge, is the complex construction and performative aspect. Seeking out and hiring the local didge expert is part of the process, which culminates when gallery-goers lay within the instrument so that they can meditate while completely enveloped by sound and vibration.  There are 7 openings for air to flow through – 1 for the musician to blow into, 2 for the ears, 2 for the breasts, 1 for the belly button, and 1 for the groin. (It hits all the chakras.) The PVC pipes are painted with a stone-craft patina, and placed on a hand-woven yak-wool blanket.  When the performance is not happening, most people do not realize that the object has anything other than a purely aesthetic purpose — it is indeed a curiously beautiful apparatus.

Internet-based research is also a huge resource for Bull’s work.  He’s inspired by amateur enthusiasts, garage scientists and fringe thinkers sharing their work on the web.  Framed and overlooking the entire space is one of the characters he came across while surfing youtube – the owner of Casa Piramidal, a pyramid-shaped mansion in Santa Catarina, Brazil. In the back room, there is a video projection of a suburban backyard. When you don the headphones, vibrating ‘OMs’ fill your ears. Both of these visual and audio elements were culled from the internet.

Adorning one gallery corner is a “rain stick” covered in luscious salt crystals that the mad-scientist Bull grew onsite with bluing and ammonia. In the garden space, the thread between inexplicable meditation techniques and casual Western comfort continues. Three butterfly sporting chairs sit in the grass, outfitted with copper-piping and chic pyramid-shaped crowns. Beside them is an analogous cooler of beer.

Born 1984 in Stockholm Sweden, this is Josef Bull’s first solo show in New York.  He  graduated from Konstfack University College of Arts in 2009 and has exhibited internationally at Museum of Ethnograpy Stockholm; Mare Gallery, Crete; Hanaholmen Cultural Center, Helsinki;  Forgotten Bar / Galerie Im Regierungsviertel, Berlin;  Peter Bergman Gallery, Stockholm. He’s a co-founder and editor of the publishing house and artist collective Nautofon. With such a stunning exhibition history and this New York debut, I can’t wait to see what curiosities the young Bull has up his sleeve next.  Until then, this show is a must-see.  Jackie Klempay Gallery is open the night of the opening, always by appointment, and usually on Wednesday evenings 7:30-9:30 pm.