Bill Viola Infinite Being
How does an artist push back the limits of video? Keep going further? This is the question that has driven Bill Viola’s work in this medium that he pioneered, and the current retrospective at the Grand Palais, Paris (through July 21) shows where it has led him through a score of works on over thirty screens, representing many hours of projection. Viola’s cutting-edge image-making is infused with the luminosity and formal rigor of Renaissance art.
Up to now, French viewers have been able to see works by Bill Viola only in small quantities, never more than two or three at any one time. But now there are some twenty all at once, spreading over two floors of the Grand Palais in a magnificent wave of over seven hours of images. And we are carried along, moved and stunned, with each work conveying what was and has remained the artist’s fundamental ambition from the outset: to keep moving forward with video, pushing back the limits, subverting its supposed specificity, which he had helped establish, and to express exclusively in video, but by every possible means, the secrets of an obsession that is nothing more and nothing less than the limits of Being. But Being, of course, is limitless. Moving through this exhibition, from The Reflecting Pool to the underwater beatitude of The Dreamers, Being spreads endlessly. Initially perceived in Time as a sum of moments, Being then emerges in space as the halo of an existing entity. That is what I deduce when I see all these installations. And what I understand when I listen to the person who created them. Here are two excerpts from an interview I made in Long Beach, California, on November 3, 2013, for a film: Bill Viola, expérience de l’Infini.
A POSITIVE TRAUMA
Why at the end of The Space Between the Teeth, do we have this image of the man— you—in the water? Was he thrown into the water (of a river) or swallowed up by the backwash of a boat (out of the frame).
I have always been interested in water. I had an experience when I was young, I was almost drowned , it was really quite amazing, and it actually changed my entire life, and I think that for me this is the most important experience in my life, when I was six and fell in the water. My uncle was there, just by chance, and he jumped in the
water and pulled me out, but I was under for a little bit, and that was a very strong emotional kind of experience for me. I had no fear, absolutely no fear, I would have stayed there if he did not come in, and I would have been very happy.
Is the cry in The Space Between the Teeth related to this accident?
No, I never thought about it that way, it probably is. It’s an inner, internal cry, at that point. But again, it was not crying for fear, it was almost like a crying for liberation. When I felt I did not have any weight, I just went right to the bottom, and I just sat on the bottom of the lake, it was as tall as the ceiling, maybe a little bit higher, and I just went to the bottom and I just sat there, and I saw these incredible things, so it was a positive experience, not a frightening experience, you know, and it was a kind of a trauma, but a positive trauma. Maybe some other person who went down there and did not have my mentality would have had a very difficult time, they might have drowned, because they would have been frightened, but I was not frightened, I thought I was in heaven or something like it. It seemed like it was a new world , I had never been under water, I never saw that angle of view, and since that time, I always come back to that, constantly. In all my work you see the trend of that, in all my work; and I know I was lucky that I was very focused at that time, as a child, because any other person would go, you know, wild, and have drowned, they wouldn’t stay there if they would know how to swim, but I did not know how to swim at that time, so, someone else would have died, and I was just very calm, mesmerized, I thought it was the most beautiful world I had ever seen, a new world.
What are the other turning points? How did The Greeting come about?
I’ll tell you a story. I was in a bookshop and I happened to pick up a book. At that time I was getting a little bit interested in the Renaissance, but not that deeply, because I was much more interested in getting forward with video and keeping going in that direction. I was just in the bookshop at that time, and looking down I saw this image I will never forget, of these three women, and they were in flowing robes, and I knew it was a Renaissance picture, and they were engaged in some sort of conversation which I didn't know what it was, though I could see clearly that they focused on each other. One of them was kind of turning away and it was, it just captivated me, I cannot say why, and then I brought the book home, to my study, and I started to read it, and especially to look at the pictures. I was just fascinated, something in the picture grabbed me, and I really did not know what it was. I began to think of another experience I had. I was in the car, driving to my studio one day, and there were three women on the street corner. I had to stop at the light, and these women were just coming back from their lunch break, in the afternoon, they were walking right in front of me on the other side of the street, and it was windy, and so as they started to go across the street, the wind came up and their dresses were kind of moving as they were passing by me, like this, and I was in this, of course, sealed capsule of a car, you know I was like the outside observer, a perfect position to be looking at things, and I just watched them go across and go away, and then the light changed, and, first thing I did was to, when I got to the studio, I raced back, opened the door, and walked right to the book I had on Pontormo, and I opened it up, and there it was, exactly the same thing that I had seen, from the Renaissance. Quite unbelievable, I mean, and that was the first time that I ever thought of making a Renaissance painting; I had no interest in it, to make a Renaissance painting, but something in my mind, a part of me that isn’t connected to this guy up here talking kept me coming back to it until I realized that I had to make this piece. It had to wait almost four years for it to become a piece. We did these big productions, with sets, and a lot of my friends were shocked when they realized that I was doing a set with women in robes! They said “You traitor! What are you doing ?” [ Laughs] And I did not know what I was doing.
GETTING FORWARD WITH VIDEO
“Getting forward with video.” That was the concern on Bill Viola’s mind when he became interested in Italian Renaissance painting. Hearing him explain how he came to make The Greeting, a tableau vivant inspired by a work by Pontormo (1494– 1557), I did not immediately grasp how this work connects to the experience that he locates as the origin of all his work: that time, aged six, when he fell into a pool and almost drowned. Down at the bottom of that pool, during those few seconds of apnea, he glimpsed a world that nobody else had seen. The accident as source of inspiration: permanent, total and absolute. “It’s there in all my work,” he notes.
There is, certainly, a great deal of water in Viola’s videos, as is confirmed by all the divers, false-drownings, altruistic Narcissuses, victims of urban tsunamis and other heroes emerging from the water. But there is no water in The Greeting (which, in fact, the exhibition does not show, perhaps because it was deemed too familiar, and because it was shown in Paris at the church of Saint-Eustache in 2000). And yet that work too owes its existence to its link with the “positive trauma” of the six year-old’s near death by drowning. This turning point in his work, the dividing line between two halves of his production, was conceived, Viola informs us, in a state of immersion: looking out through his car, he saw three women crossing the road, their dresses moved by the wind, and felt exactly as he had as a child when drowning provided him with those enchanting visions. The sealed capsule of his car reconnected him with what he argues is the primal scene of all his creative acts. Superb coherence. Bravo the subconscious.
He had found something, but what? How to get forward with video, by immersing himself in the Renaissance and its paintings. What, a tableau vivant? How does that relate to video? This was scandalous. His friends protested, his admirers didn’t know what to think. His manner had changed, but also his material, the air, the action, the perspective, the personnel. Everything, except the medium. On the contrary, it was he said, in order to keep up his experimentation with the possibilities of video that he set off on this pictorial journey. Before then, his videos had offered the log of his experiences with space and time, perceived through the implication of his own body in the specific places and situations (moments) chosen for their yield of extreme sensations. But where was he taking the medium by taking up The Visitation, the work of a Mannerist painter? Into an even more vivid exploration of the ups and downs of Being, observed not in real time but in instant replay. This is not the kind of reconstituted Real that we get with Pasolini as he follows Jesus with his camera on his shoulder (thereby opening up a new kind of cinema which is still being made today), but in the folds and coils (with Leibniz and Deleuze) of a Representation through representation. Here the stretching of these temporal folds, seen in close-up, reveals not the content of a moment (the density of the Real) but the splendor of a being. The given, by an already-formed image, visited as the one possible epiphany of Being. Nobody had tried to attain that with video before.
After his Visitation, Bill Viola did nothing else. He reproduced several Renaissance paintings (including Emergence, a strange Resurrection ending in a Pietà), but soon extended his system of figuration, which ultimately has more to do with theater than painting, to all kinds of situations staged with more and more actors. For example, the splendid Going Forth by Day, in which five stupefying scenes are spread over 300 square meters in the Grand Palais, forming a single vision. The decision by Jérôme Neutres and Kira Perov, the curators of the Grand Palais show, to combine works from Viola’s two periods (for example, Chott-El-Djerid, a documentary on mirages in the Tunisian desert, and The Encounter, in which two women replay the actions of The Visitation against a backdrop of mirages in the American desert) enables us to constantly measure this extension of the powers of video which has always been his goal, on each occasion heightening our joy at being there.
Video maker Jean-Paul Fargier produced Bill Viola, expérience de l’Infini in 2013 (color film, French and English, 52 mn, NTSC. © 2014 – Réunion des Musées Nationaux - Grand Palais; coprod. © 2013 – MAT FILMS, Réunion des Musées Nationaux - Grand Palais, tvfil78). He has just published Bill Viola, au fil du temps (De l’Incidence), a collection of his writings on Viola, and in particular his pieces for artpress. « Slowly Turning Narrative ». 1992. Vidéo (Ph. G. McKinnis)
Né en / born 1951 Vit et travaille à / lives in Long Beach, Californie Expositions récentes / Recent shows: 2010 He Weeps for You et Reflecting Pool Studio national des arts contemporains, Le Fresnoy 2013 Lovers, Instants numériques, Marseille The Hall of Whispers, Conciergerie, Paris (À Triple Tour)
Tristan et Isold (décor pour) de Peter Sellars (créé en 2005), Opéra Bastille, Paris 2014 Inner Passage (hommage to Richard Long), Vidéoformes, Clermont-Ferrand (19 mars-6 avril) ; Trace(s) numériques, Chartreuse de Valbonne, Gard (15 mai - 7 juin) 20e Festival international d’art vidéo, Casablanca (22 - 26 avril) Autoportrait, Galerie des Offices, Florence Martyrs (quadriptyque), église Saint-Paul, Londres (mai)
« The Greeting ». 1995. Installation vidéo sonore. (Coll. Whitney Museum of American Art ; Ph. K. Perov). Video installation with sound
« The City of Man ». 1989. Installation vidéo sonore. Video installation with sound