In front of or surrounded by one of Bill Viola’s videotapes or video/sound installa- tions, most viewers stand transfixed. In Five Angels for the Millennium (2001), we watch scenes of a figure ascending and descending into a pool of water at night; in The Crossing (1996), installed in a darkened gallery, we see a two-sided projection of a solitary man striding forward from a distance. Upon nearing, he comes to a stop, and then, on one side of the suspended screen, the man becomes engulfed in rising flames [9-18]; simultaneously, on the other side of the screen, the same figure becomes engulfed in a rapidly building torrent of water [9-19]. After he is totally immersed on both sides, the cascade of water and blazing fire die out. The man has disappeared. Then the cycle repeats. In describing this work, the artist wrote, “The two traditional natural elements of fire and water appear here not only in their de- structive aspects, but manifest their cathartic, purifying, transformative, and regen- erative capacities as well. In this way, self-annihilation becomes a necessary means to transcendence and liberation.”
Bill Viola | The Crossing, 1996 9-19 | Bill Viola | The Crossing, 1996
The overall effect of these examples of Viola’s work can confound us. Why? First, there is the issue of the function and meaning of his choices of specific images. We may be tempted to assume that the artist is using images from nature symbolically: a pool of water (in Five Angels for the Millennium), perhaps standing for purity, and the night sky, perhaps standing for the vast knowledge we have yet to learn. We have had practice interpreting such natural symbols in poems, movies, novels, and private walks in the woods; we are primed by culture to translate the rich potential of nature’s symbolism.
However, in deriving the core of his imagistic vocabulary from nature, Viola moves beyond a symbolic interpretation. Viola intends the video imagery not as mere representation or symbol, but as reification. The image does not carry the meaning of an external subject; it becomes the subject itself. And it does so on two key levels. First, “Time, life, death, space and the individual in Viola’s work are never concepts or events translatable to other languages, but languages in them- selves, places of immanence of meanings which cannot be articulated.”51 Second, Viola’s video imagery becomes a world unto itself that parallels and embodies those aspects of the human condition upon which the work concentrates attention. To put this into the terms of a specific work, in The Crossing the immersion in water is just that—an immersion; the immersion creates transmogrification, not on a metaphoric or symbolic level but on the phenomenological level. The video event is the event. Viola’s concern is not principally with the figure (the actor) in the imagery but with our (the audience’s) relationship to the imagery. We become immersed in the event of the total artwork.
In many of his works Viola concentrates our attention on the transformation of imagery from the beautiful to the awesome. We watch this occur in The Crossing as the rush of water builds from a glittering trickle to a frightening torrent. At the dra- matic ending of the cycle—when the figure has melded with the infinite power of water and fire—he (the man in the artwork) disappears into the cosmos, and we (the viewers in the gallery) are in the midst of experiencing the sublime.
What is the sublime? As discussed in this chapter, the sublime is a powerful ex- perience that combines disparate feelings. Cynthia Freeland applied the term in a careful analysis of several examples of Bill Viola’s video works. As she explained, “The sublime was overwhelming, something that might sweep one away with its vast size or power. Whereas the beautiful was smooth and soft, the sublime was rough and jagged. Stormy oceans and jagged mountains were typical examples.”52
A signature device in many of Viola’s videotapes and installations is the slowing of time; Viola elongates the duration of an event to allow our mind to catch up with our sensory perceptions. (In addition to slowing time, in Viola’s body of work there are also examples of time being rapidly speeded up, in which Viola’s keen interest in exploring the limits of human perception is manifest.)53 Seeing and hearing a slowed-down sequence of images and sounds—ocean waves, for instance—we have time to marvel at, and meditate on, what it is we are experiencing in the pre- sent moment. This slowed-down and focused way of thinking can become a spiritual exercise for the viewer. The water concentrates our attention on our relationship to the water, as an aspect of reality: the water and we, in the midst of watching the water, are unified in the temporal flow. Understanding this unification provides us with a gateway to understanding our unification with the whole of reality as our minds expand in greater and greater circumferences of thought. At the least, we believe that Viola’s work aims for this deep (if swift) connection of viewer and video, sound, gallery, meaning, and reality.
That Viola would ask us to consider a transcendent plane of meaning confounds us because the quest for a vivid spiritual connection is rarely so openly expressed in the current art world. In the West, an uncritical embrace of the spiritual realm lost currency during the heyday of modernism, at least in the discussions of critics. Fur- ther disengagement came during the dismantling of grand narratives in the late twentieth century. Art historian James Elkins has written on the difficulties and rarity of creating serious visual art today that celebrates, embodies, or explores religion or spirituality without irony or a critical stance.54 Viola’s creations do not aim for a scien- tific, economic, or political understanding of nature by providing data and observing patterns. Viola entices us to set aside a secular mindset and embrace a paradigm of meditative spirituality. His works are informed by a broad, though eclectic, knowl- edge of global traditions of religion (including Zen Buddhism and Sufi and Christian mysticism), literature, philosophy, and natural science. Viola also draws on personal experiences, such as his near drowning when he was a child. His goal in making the work is not to contribute to the perfection of society (as an artist focusing on nature from an ecological perspective might) but to the perfection of the individual. A par- ticularly confounding aspect of his work is that Viola manages to draw viewers into a meditative state—in which we are both inside ourselves and standing outside our- selves simultaneously in contemplation of life’s enduring mysteries—within a rela- tively short time in the rather crowded urban public space of an art museum.
The effects we describe can be experienced clearly in any number of examples. The video and sound installation Room for St. John of the Cross (1983) [9-20], for instance, consists of a darkened gallery within which a mural-size video projection of distant mountain peaks covers one wall. The sound of roaring wind fills the gallery’s interior; the projected mountains shake on the wall (the result of purposefully un- steady filming); in the center of the gallery stands a black cubicle. The cubicle meas- ures slightly less than the height of an adult: it is built to the recorded dimensions of the cell in which Saint John, a sixteenth-century Christian mystic, was imprisoned during the Inquisition. Gallery viewers must stoop to peer inside the cell’s window. During the nine months of his captivity, Saint John was released from his cell only to be tortured; in solitary confinement, he produced lines of ecstatic, visionary poetry. In Viola’s installation, visitors listening at the window hear excerpts from the poems, spoken in barely audible Spanish, that include visions of flying over the mountainous landscape. A single writing table sits inside the cramped cell; on the table, a much smaller image of a single mountain is projected on a small monitor.
Exploring Room for St. John of the Cross, the viewer ponders her or his role in the implied drama. Is one a witness? possibly even a torturer? Could the viewer also “be” Saint John? The darkness of the gallery isolates each of us so that we each become the saint in solitary meditation. The tiny mountain on the monitor, a point of calm within the cell, functions like a Zen koan, providing a focus for meditative en- gagement. Alexander Puhringer explained, “Viola views his work as a kind of indi- vidual exercise. But what makes it transcend the private realm is the way it is treated. Of decisive importance here is the fact that Viola—in William Blake’s sense—grants every person the ability of having visions and being in contact with the divine imagi- nation.”55 Viola choreographs the entire scene so that viewers/listeners are not merely captivated by the experience but are also transported. From this spiritual perspective we see the mountain. The mountain landscape moving on the wall is the mountain, and the still mountain on the monitor in the cell is also the mountain. One does not symbolize the other. The mountain is not a symbol of escape or en- durance. The mountain is the mountain. Existence is being.
Another interesting aspect of Viola’s work, given its spiritual import, is the reli- ance on the medium of video, a technology related to television, perhaps the most commercialized of all contemporary media. For Viola, time is the fundamental ele- ment of video. The flow of time in video parallels the dynamic, continual changes that take place in reality. Thus, form and content blend seamlessly. Viola analyzes the relationship of medium to motif: “Most important, it is the awareness of our own mortality that defines the nature of human beings. . . . As instruments of time, the materials of video . . . have as a part of their nature this fragility of temporal exist- ence. Images are born, they are created, they exist, and, in the flick of a switch, they die.”56 Reality is in flux; transformation and transition occur incessantly. In Viola’s Tiny Deaths (1993), the imagery consists of a group of anonymous figures, whose poses mimic those of the museum audience. In the video imagery, each figure glows for a period of time and then slowly loses contrast, turning luminescent before finally disappearing.
In the mid-1990s, Viola began to create video versions of iconic Renaissance paintings (such as The Greeting, based on a visitation scene by the sixteenth-cen- tury Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo). In Viola’s versions, the stillness of the imagery is revealed as an ever so slowly changing video image. The greatest conundrum of all, in Viola’s art, appears to be time itself. Time is change, and in time all will change.
Viola’s work is most compelling because it confronts and compels viewers with a secular outlook to consider questions to which there is no secular or scientific answer: Why do we live? Why do we die? What is the meaning of time?
Bill Viola was born in 1951 in Flushing, New York. He received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Syracuse University. Viola and his wife and collaborator, Kira Perov, currently live in Long Beach, California.