“I started doing a lot of vertical work because of the limitation of space, and the power you get from going high, going tall,” says Billio about the design of the interior. “Being tall myself I realized at an early age that I stood out because I was tall. Something tall grabs attention from the viewer, it becomes larger than life as well, which allows people to kind of dive into the experiences. It can almost wash over you.”
The walls of his room are elongated by towering yellow and black stacked sculptures originally created for the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art. A series of identical yellow rhinoceroses with glittering rhinestone eyes hide coyly in a glass cabinet, peeking out from over his shoulder and creating the effect of a magical yellow herd.
The youngest of four children, Bruno was born and raised in Toronto and lived in Italy and England before returning to his Canadian roots. When he lived at home with his siblings, parents and grandparents, he made wine, preserves and prosciutti while enjoying many big family dinners. He grew up in a bit of a time warp, feeling the great separation of the reality of Italy and the fantasy of trying to relive the childhood that his parents had.
“My inspiration, I think, from the beginning of my career was my parents and my upbringing. Oddly enough, it was an expression of how I felt being who I was in my family, being Italian and Canadian. It really was a digestion of the ideas I had in my head and how to decipher these ideas through the language which is my art and my sculpture.”
A main theme of his work involves stacking objects, creating obvious hazards for the artist and the observer. “Things fall down less and less. Part of the work is that it does fall. Things do get built up and they do come crashing down. I never fought that, making something so permanent and rigid. Everything I do is just stacked.”
For one project, Bruno was given free range over products at IKEA. He was invited to create anything he wanted, using as much product as he desired, to the tune of him ordering eight hundred chairs and stools, though he ended up using sixty chairs in the end.
He began by stacking. He wanted to go as high as he possibly could, supporting the chairs as he went to prevent them from tipping over. He stacked them almost to the ceiling, then at one point he took the support stick out and the entire stack bent, making a huge cracking sound. At once the stack fell into itself and locked into place. The chairs became the basis of a philosophical question, challenging the artist’s perception of the objects and then leaving the rest up to the viewer.
The height and instability of his sculptures evoke a sense of tension and excitement through the play of height, balance and proportion. The IKEA chairs are a good example of this, as is the twelve foot tall sculpture that sits in the lobby of the Hazelton Hotel. Built of precariously stacked luggage and trunks made of nickel, the smallest trunks are at the bottom while the largest sit at the top, creating a magical visual illusion.
His first series of sculptures, made at the age of twenty-four, were stacks of his personal objects, “There was no alcohol; there were no drugs. I don’t even think I had much to eat that day, but I was in this euphoric state of just creating and seeing the beauty in nothing.”
Though Bruno acknowledges how difficult it is to make a career in art, and having moments where one lacks the strength or clarity of what they are doing, he maintains that “I don’t have a choice to create or not to create, just like I don’t have a choice to breathe or not to breathe.”
Bruno’s upcoming work includes artistic direction of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Massive Party, the restoration of The Great Hall and Restaurant, and work with the Pan American Games. He would like to make a return to the Venice Biennale, where he previously participated as an artist in the Canadian pavilion and made his entrance by canoeing across the Grand Canal and building a log cabin out of wood shipped from the great white North.