Bill Viola’s hard truth
Bill Viola has seemingly translated a singular, incredible childhood experience into an entire oeuvre. Experiencing the sensation of pre-drowning left an indelible mark on his senses, which he has carried with him throughout his life and applied directly to his art. Beginning working in the era when video was a new medium, he embraced it wholeheartedly, as it suited the sensations he was trying to convey rather perfectly. And so it has continued. Viola has explored many different angles in his work, but the common thread is readily detectable. It is no accident that the series that has endured to this day relates to being underwater.
Viola came to the artistic stage in the 1970s, as a pioneer in video art. Everything about this medium was new, and that attracted him. In an early piece like Space between Teeth, a man in a chair is shouting at intervals at the top of his lungs, while the camera zooms out at high speed through a narrow corridor. The work seems to be about pushing something to the border. Uncomfortable art, one could say, challenging the viewer and not allowing him to stay outside the work. Some of Viola’s newest videos still have this demanding or even unpleasant quality.
Man searching for Immortality, Woman searching for Eternity shows an old man and woman each meticulously inspecting their body for a defect; they must be worried about sickness and death. And the projection of their images on black granite panels feeds this association, while at the same time presenting a unique kind of beauty. It’s Viola at his best, both annoying and enchanting. Does the artist himself think of his work as unpleasant or confrontational? He nods without hesitation. “You have to have something to push on. If it’s too easy, it’s not interesting.” If we ask how he imagines the viewer relating to this aspect of the works, he says he has only an abstract sense of someone looking, rather than a particular person in mind. “The Hindus have the best word for this: Darshan, which means seeing and being seen by God.” For Viola, seeing and making are related to devotion. It’s not just about the artist who is creating; it’s also about something ‘out there’ that supports the creation.
Whoever expects to find in Bill Viola an artist who talks excitedly about developments in video technology is mistaken. Technology is just a tool. A meeting with Viola is more like a course in the spiritual understanding of art and life. It’s the gap between the heart and the head, according to Viola, that is the missing link in our lives, and that’s where art comes in. And it’s about mystery.
The title of the show: Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures, refers to a nine-screen installation in which people are performing the same action over and over again. The opposite of mystery, one could say. A woman fights with her husband and slaps him in the face, after which they reconcile and hug. Then the man does the same, and so it continues. Life in a loop. The series is based on the myth of Sisyphus, the punished Greek king who had to roll his stone uphill, only to see it roll back down when he had almost reached the top. “Sisyphus knows the deal”, Viola explains, “In the video he doesn’t walk downhill too fast to get his stone. He’s going into this nameless ritual. Something touched me about that. It’s funny, a bit like Laurel and Hardy. But in the end, you realise that it’s painful to do the same thing over and over again.”
How does Viola proceed to create a work? Is it, given his interest in the spiritual, about putting himself in the right frame of mind? “Sure, but it’s also important to have crises. Sometimes the muse goes away. You think you have the idea, you’re all set, you sit down in your studio and then... it’s gone. People should pay more attention to this. It’s telling you what it needs. It’s not you who is doing the telling. Many artists get into the kind of situation in which they are in control; they want to make it airtight. But I’ve made some major pieces that were done by accident, where I did something wrong. That was essential to the piece. Some works for this show we did in the desert. When we started shooting, a blizzard came. At first I thought ‘Oh my God’. But I kept filming, which, as it turnedout, worked very well. Ultimately, it’s a collaboration between you and the cosmos.”
A decisive turn in Viola’s career was with his Room for Saint John of the Cross (1983), dedicated to the Catholic mystic who was put in jail by the Inquisition. He had to endure hardships, being locked in a prison cell that was too small in which to stand or lie down straight. But he didn’t express any hatred towards his guards or punishers. He forgave them. This and other mystic sources, from different traditions, are of interest to Viola. He spent one-and-ahalf years in Japan together with his wife Kira; they had a Zen teacher and the difference in approach to western logic made a huge impression. Didn’t Viola get disapproving reactions to his explicit references to mystic subject matter? “The New York critics went crazy”, Viola recalls, “It was not the done thing in those days. Imagine, I was a young artist making a work about a Catholic saint. At that time, I was hiding my work. But with The Room for Saint John I laid my cards on the table. I felt relieved.” Viola didn’t want to keep-up an attitude anymore. He has noticed that a lot of young artists observe the currents of their time and deduce from that where to go. But that’s not his way. “Art history wouldn’t exist unless there were people that broke the rules.”
If you ask yourself if Viola’s spiritual interest is internalized in his works in a convincing way, the answer will differ from work to work. As for the London show, there are truly enchanting works to be seen, like the The Dreamers, made by an artist who is freely at home in the medium of video. Other works have less flow and come across as somewhat didactic storytelling, like Angel at the Door (2013), that takes up the encounter of a man with his ‘double’, or self-image. This Sisyphus-based work uses video as a tool to record some actors depicting a story, and not much more. It reminds one of Julian Rosefeldt’s Trilogy of Failure in which the film/video medium is used in a more original way, while addressing the same subject matter.
It seems that the works in which Viola uses video to capture something that only video can show in that particular way, are the most intriguing. Like The Passage, in which a man is approaching through a desert landscape, until he reaches the lens of the camera and walks straight into it, blacking-out the image. Then a fast flow of images pass – those of fear, desire, a flash of what seems to be memories of a lifetime in just a couple of seconds. After this condensed cinematic explosion, the calm view of the desert returns and the protagonist is continuing his walk, but now it is his back that is filmed, as he disappears. It is like the man has walked through the camera and given us an insight into what happened inside the ‘eye’, which, at the same time, was what happened in the walker’s mind. Here, the cinematic manipulation of time produces content itself, and that could truly be called mysterious. “Never complete a work”, Viola says, referring to his insights from Japan, where he was taught the importance of imperfection in art. “When you finish a work, you’re dead.” It seems a hard truth, one that can also be used to distinguish between the more open and more closed works of the video master himself. ‹
“We all have to be able to get out of our daily lives”, says Bill Viola as he introduces his work, The Dreamers, for which the visitor has to descend into a dark space in the basement of the gallery. It is a passage that fits the content, because art is about entering an unfamiliar space, according to Viola. The work consists of seven large video portraits, each of a clothed individual underwater with his eyes closed. The strange thing is that none of the people pictured seem to be scared or alarmed. They seem to belong underwater. Their presence, with the water moving their hair and clothes, has something quiet and soothing about it. It is the most comforting work in the exhibition. And it forms part of the on-going Water Portrait series in which, through the years, Viola has been exploring the element of water.
As a six-year-old boy, Bill Viola fell into the water, somewhere outside in the natural environment, sinking down to the bottom. What he saw fascinated him: a colourful world of plants, stones, and underwater life. He was enchanted rather than scared, and he was curious as to what would happen next. Then hands grabbed him and his uncle started pulling him to the surface. At once, his life was saved and he had found inspiration for his future as an artist. “The real thing can be found under the surface”, Viola says, connecting this memory to his latest work. For him, water relates to the medium of video in a direct way. Water flows like time. “Electricity”, Viola adds, “is often compared to water – they have the same physics.”