Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 2#3 Unnützer, Petra 1 jan 1988

Bill Viola at the Moma

After three years of preparation, New York's Museum of modern art presented an exhibition of installations and videos by Bill Viola in October of last year.

It was the museum's first major retrospective show of work by a video artist. BARBARA LONDON, the exhibition's curator, only had half of the INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL GALLERY at her disposal, the space which is reserved for the museum's exhibitions of contemporary art. It was possible to realize three installations in this space, one of which was specially made for this exhibition.
A selection of VIOLA's videotapes from1972 to 1986 was shown in the EDUCATION CENTER which is used for screenings of film and video. There were some excellent photos of the tapes (by KIRA PEROV) in the actual exhibition space as a reference to VIOLA's important video productions. VIOLA is involved with revealing the various levels of human consciousness. He is fascinated by the effect of extreme situations (both physically and mentally) on our perception, the changing awareness involved and the role that memory, images, space and the factor of time play in this process.


2#3 - Passage

Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, a 1982 video/sound installation is dedicated to PHINEAS GAGE. There was a description of the peculiar fate of this railwayman on the wall by the entrance to the installation. He miraculously survived a terrible accident in 1848 when an explosive charge went off too early and an iron rod transfixed GAGE's head. Amazingly, he survived the accident but a part of his brain was completely destroyed. His personality changed radically. Because he could no longer work regularly, he travelled about the country and appeared at annual fairs. In addition, he was a constant guinea-pig for scientists researching the brain's functions. His skull together with the iron rod is still on show in HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL's museum.

After this introduction, you entered a dimly-lit space containing a monitor, a roughly knocked-together chair and two loud-speakers. If you were in luck, a loud, aggressive thunderclap went off just as you entered which made you at least jump with fright. The chair had old-fashioned headphones and was lit by a small spotlight. On the monitor opposite you could see VIOLA seated on the same chair wearily staring straight ahead. He could barely maintain attention - he hadn't slept for three days - but before he had a chance to nod off, a hand with a rolled-up magazine emerged from behind and hit him sharply on the head. At the same time over the headphones you could hear every sound that an ear in the head would hear: every breath, every gulp and, especially clearly of course, every blow to the head. VIOLA made this original 45 minute sound recording with the aid of microphones in his ears which he mixed with snatches of memories of his youth. This combined soundtrack evoked the suggestion in the visitor that he was experiencing the physical and mental events in the artist's head. In this way VIOLA created a very intimate and private atmosphere.

Snowy Mountains
You again had to enter a barely illuminated space for Room for StJohn of the Cross, a 1983 installation which had been loaned by the MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART in Los Angeles. Two powerful images emerged from out of the darkness. A grainy black-and-white tape of snow-covered mountains was projected on the back wall and accompanied by the sounds of a storm. It seemed as if the hand-held camera was being jolted back and forth by the storm, panning faster and faster and more and more hectically. Close-ups were alternated with total shots, light with dark. The mountainous landscape moved in wild patterns, rich in contrast. An inaccessible bedroom/cell with a brightly illuminated window and measuring approximately 1.80 x 1.50 x 1.65m was located roughly in the middle of the space. Strong-smelling earth was strewn on the floor and to the left at the back was a table with a metal jug, a glass of water and a small 9cm monitor on it. You saw a superb brightly-colored image of a snow-covered mountain with trees and shrubs in the foreground which moved from time to time in the wind. FRANCESCO TORRES read the original Spanish poems of Saint John of the Cross in a quiet, clear voice. Here too, the installation's title was a sign. A text provided the visitor with an explanation of the fate of StJohn of the Cross: the Spanish poet and mystic (1542-1591) was imprisoned for nine months by the Inquisition during the reign of PHILIP II. He was tortured horribly and stuck in a cell with no windows in which he could not stand upright. He wrote most of his poems during this period. They are about love, ecstasy, about ways through night's darkness, and about flying away across the city wall, beyond and over the mountains.

There was no concrete, special, handed down fate forming the basis of VIOLA's most recent installation. You entered Passage (1987), by a six meter-long, narrow corridor - a half-dark passage. Enticed by a vague murmuring, you arrived in a high rectangular space with two broad sides and two narrow. You stood in front of a colossal screen that extended across the whole of the back wall. About ten times the size of an average television set, the video image with its enormous lines, picture points and magnificent display of color was so overwhelming that spectators remained standing as if bewitched facing the wall, not being able to survey the entire image. The tape, which was projected from behind on a translucent screen of three and-a-half by five meters, showed the birthday party of a two year-old child. The tape was actually twenty minutes long but the playing speed had been slowed down in such a way that the actual time amounted to six hours and 57 minutes. In other words: the duration of a (museum) day. The enormously enlarged images -laughing faces, happily playing children lacking nothing in the way of cakes and pony-rides -, the actors' slowed-down movements from image to image effected something of a state of floating in time and space. Close-ups changed objects into abstract colour structures, patterns and worlds. The sight of these harmonious images in slow, soft movements where each moment was a little eternity made many of those present drift away if hypnotized in a beautiful floating state - like a fairytale.
Perhaps too beautiful. Striking memories of past youth that can assume mythic proportions over the years here were imposed on nearly every visitor: you were directly affected. That was what VIOLA was driving at, as one can gather from his statements about memory: As if memory were a sort of filter, another editing process. In fact the editing is going on all the time. Images are always being created and transformed... I think memory is as much about the future as it is about the past... I'm interested in how thought is a function of time, There is a moment when the act of perception becomes conception, and that is thought.

Visual Sensibility
A retrospective of VIOLA's. tapes was last shown in the 1ère Semaine Internationale de Video (1986) in Geneva, a selection of tapes which was virtually indistinguishable from those shown in MOMA. In his early work he was engaged in the simple transformation of reality through the medium of video with its possibilities for electronic processing (The Reflecting Pool 1977-1980). Constantly abreast of the most up-to-date developments in video technology, technically he makes extremely complex works that often look deceptively simple. Again and again he is investigating the phenomena of perception: the perception of babies in Silent Life (1979), the optical phenomena in the desert in Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat, 1979) and the experience of keeping oneself awake for three days alone in a room in Reason for Knocking at an Empty House (1983). VIOLA's eye for the mysterious in a normal or natural environment, his visual sensibility, his ability with video technology and phenomena investigated in combined images is revealed in a very impressive way in Hatsu Yume (The First Dream, 1981) or Anthem (1983). VIOLA finds his themes primarily in the natural, spiritual regions of our planet, and examines links and interactions between outer and inner worlds. Thus he attempts to create an universal consciousness that surpasses the limits of the individual.

Translation: Annie Wright