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Bill Viola’s Video Arcade

From his work in the medium before MTV even existed to his anointment as a major artist with a new Whitney retrospective, Viola has consistently proved that video images can be just as moving as those on a canvas.

Bill Viola in 2009. Photo: Jean-Baptiste LaBrune. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bill Viola in 2009. Photo: Jean-Baptiste LaBrune. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Video art was already being produced in the 60’s, when almost no one had even heard of a VCR and new music came out only on LP’s. It has, nonetheless, remained relatively exotic to the general public even while the word video has become commonplace.

Video artists almost insistently kept their work obscure, staking out space on the avant-garde’s cutting edge, often by being self-consciously abstract and punishingly tedious. Much of what was meant to be profound was just profoundly irritating. Further, video art is not especially user- friendly; sequential rather than analogue by nature, videos require too much time for a public that likes to dog-trot through galleries and museums, too much of a commitment.

All this has tended to eclipse both the achievements of younger artists using the medium in unaffected ways and the splendid accomplishment of such greats as Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, Gary Hill and Bill Viola. But even the work of these men relied on a recondite vocabulary that very few people were willing to learn.

Now, though, the language of video art has infiltrated the real world — via amusement arcades, Internet ads, MTV — and we are all native speakers. Video artists were the first to insist that we might watch jumbles of rapidly shifting images and make some sense of them, the first to compose visual sequences that conflated mundane images in fantastic collage. Their art created the look and ethos of much recent popular culture; popular culture has in turn given us the ability to appreciate their art.

Bill Viola’s one-man retrospective, which opens at the Whitney Museum on Thursday, is being billed as the largest show ever mounted of a video artist. It covers work from 1972 to 1996 and shows an artist in his prime who has been inspired by and then transcended developing technology. Viola’s methods are ingenious, but the medium is not the message in his work; what he has to say has become with time at least as impressive as how he says it. Despite his playful techno-wizardry, the results are emotional, communicative, intimate and moral.

When Viola went up to the dais at the dinner for his opening at the Los Angeles County Museum in October, the crowd gave him a standing ovation. He surveyed the cheering throng for a minute and, without saying a word, sat down cross-legged in front of the podium. Everyone burst out laughing and clapped louder. Only when they at last sat down did he stand up. The gesture of sitting — gently mocking, modest, serious and communicative without requiring a caption — had the same combination of complexity and clarity as his work.

Viola has a goatee, wears comfortable clothes and has a laid-back, mild manner, but he is a details man. The day his retrospective opened in Los Angeles, he gave a tour to the guards who would be on duty at the show. Never patronizing, ever meticulous, he showed them how to use their flashlights so as to cause the minimum disruption of projections and where to lead elderly people in the dark. He pointed out corners where “boys and girls can kiss each other and shouldn’t be interrupted.” He asked the guards to look at the art and explained it to them thoroughly enough so that they would be able to answer questions from the public. He said what he needed to say, but he also stood with the guards in front of each piece for some time, letting the work speak to them, trying to help them like it.

He Weeps for You, from 1976, is lyrical and upsetting. You enter a dark room and, more or less by instinct, walk to a small spotlighted area. In front of you is a copper pipe, at the end of which a drop of water is slowly forming. Behind the pipe is a video camera. On the wall to your left is a giant video projection that is showing the drop of water. As you stand there, trying to make sense of this, you notice that there seems to be a human figure contained in the drop of water. You peer quizzically at it, and it peers quizzically at you: it is your reflection in the water droplet, and as the droplet gets bigger and fatter, your image becomes larger and clearer until it nearly fills the screen. And just as you come satisfyingly close to recognizing all of yourself reflected, the drop fills out and falls from the pipe, and you see your image shattered. The drop hits an amplified drum, and a deep boom sounds through the room, as though a small bomb had fallen. By the time you have reoriented yourself, the next drop is beginning to swell from the tip of the copper pipe, and on the wall, there you are, in it again.

“You start to play the piano, and you’re consciously hitting notes — you’re not playing music yet,” Viola says of such early work. “In the 70’s, we all discovered this new technology and we were dealing with its novelty, and novelty generates energy, and energy creates vibrancy.” The artist John Baldessari predicted in the early 70’s that a new generation of artists would use video as a previous one used a pencil, and this is what Viola does. “At the beginning,” he says, “we weren’t using video like a pencil — we were using it like a bulldozer. Older artists who’d used film found the new medium unwieldy. I know what that must have felt like, because I have the same impatience with computers. But for us it was the most exciting thing in town. Now people call Nam June a pioneer, and they call me a pioneer too. The underground world of the 60’s was open to imagination — it was completely new and interesting.”

Much of Viola’s early work is contingent on technology that was novel but is now amusingly archaic. “I envision, in the distant future, restorers in some museum basement will be blowing glass, and they’ll have some 20th-century plans of this thing called a cathode-ray tube,” Viola says. “They’ll use advanced technologies to re-create an exotic effect called static snow on the screens. Did you know that you can’t even find a black-and-white monitor larger than 17 inches?” The era when seeing yourself on a screen was the stuff of fantasy is long past. In He Weeps for You, the image is grainy and the camera needs regular refocusing. Viola cherishes these imperfections. “You analyze it by pixels, and film is superior to video, some new technologies to either,” Viola says. “But these old videos have a distinct quality, the way wood has a different quality from stone or metal. When I was younger, I felt that the roughness of video captured the energy of the moment, that it had a vibrancy you could feel subliminally. I still see that in this earlier work.”

Bill Viola was born in New York in 1951. In 1960, he was captain of his school’s TV Squad at P.S. 20 in Queens. After high school, where he played drums in a rock-and-roll band, he went to Syracuse University, took classes in electronic music and at age 19 picked up a video camera for the first time. In 1971, he began studying with Jack Nelson, a professor who influenced an entire generation of new-media and experimental artists. Nelson acquired early video equipment for his students’ use, and Viola was hooked. The following year, Viola became the technical assistant to the curator of video at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, working with David Ross. Now director of the Whitney Museum, Ross has organized Viola’s show and has championed his work from the start. In 1980, Viola married Kira Perov, an arts administrator and photographer who has been his collaborator and adviser ever since; they live not in Viola’s native New York but in “calmer, easier” Southern California.

Viola’s work is collected widely by institutions and is now in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Pompidou in Paris and the Tate in London, among others. A limited number of private collectors have also bought work. Viola has been supported over the years by a variety of grants: he had a Sony grant, then won a MacArthur and is now a Getty fellow. When his work is packed, detailed instructions for reassembly are included with it, and Viola will send people from his studios to fine-tune and focus as necessary. Most of his pieces these days are made in small editions of two or three, though he has made as many as five copies of a single work. He is represented primarily by the Anthony d’Offay gallery in London.

In 1982, Viola made Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House. There’s a chair sitting in an empty room facing a video monitor. You sit down in the chair and put on headphones. On the monitor you see a man in a chair not dissimilar from the one you’re on, looking tense. Through the headphones, you hear the inside of his head — little mumblings, half-articulated anxieties, the sound of breathing, of swallowing. Out of the half-light, you see someone with a rolled-up magazine in hand sneaking up behind the seated man. Very suddenly, he hits the man in the chair over the head with the magazine. The headphones go dead; simultaneously, the sound of the assault comes out of speakers in the room. The external impinges. Your heart skips a beat as the mumbling and the breathing return to the headphones.

“One of the great tragedies of the world,” Viola says apologetically, “is that we can never truly enter the subjective of another. We’re all isolated from one another. That’s the core of that piece.” He is obsessed with how sound plays on loneliness and connectedness, on knowledge of self and other. He has often referred to his work as “sculpture with sound.” As he and I sat together one afternoon, he asked me to imagine two photos of the room in which we were sitting, one taken in silence, the other taken with tapes of screaming being played at top volume. “The violence is invisible,” Viola said. “Sound is the mediator between this world and the unseen world. You can destroy a glass with sound — you can get the walls of Jericho to tumble down. You can kill someone with sound. And yet there’s no visual component to it. Our voices right now are echoing off these walls and taking on the character of this room. When I was a kid, I used to climb a hill from which I could see two radio towers, and I would sit there and think, O.K., right now there are these standing waves coming off those towers, just radiating out all over this landscape. I’d try to visualize it. I’d think how they were passing through my body.”

In 1983, Viola made Room for St. John of the Cross, a piece in which sound, noisy but not overpowering, fills your body and nearly shakes it. You walk into a large, dark room with a projection occupying an entire wall. It’s a video of mountains in a storm, and the camera has been held by an unstable hand, as though the wind were too strong for it to stay steady. The mountains themselves seem to be in turmoil; “I need a dramamine,” one visitor said. In the middle of the room is a small booth with a glowing incandescent light. Inside the booth is a jug on a table and sawdust on the floor, and from within comes the sound of a man whispering the poems of St. John — whose faith gave him joy in a tiny cell even as the Inquisition that had imprisoned him raged outside. On the table in the booth, a video monitor shows the mountains, steady as anything, drenched in summer sun. You don’t need to know about St. John to get the idea of this work.

The exhibition, co-curated by Peter Sellars, the theater director, has no wall labels, no didactic explanations. Not until the last room can you see pages from Viola’s notebooks, crammed with ideas, drawings, poets’ quotations. “Only respond,” Viola says. “If you like the red one, you like the red one, you know? You don’t need a wall text to go to the movies. I hate exhibitions designed as books, where people read texts and then look to the art to illustrate the point.” There is, however, an excellent catalogue, and visitors are given, as they exit, a pamphlet with the titles and dates of the works. It also includes a free ticket to come back. “When you see a Cezanne, it sits still and you need a label for movement through time,” Sellars says. “Here, the work itself is in such motion that the labels get stuck outside of time. The label holds you back. It’s a fixed point in an installation about no fixed points.”

The Nantes Triptych, from 1992, consists of three screens, each 10 feet high. The left one shows a video of a woman giving birth. The right one shows a video of a woman dying. Both are actual events, filmed by Viola. The central panel — projected onto a scrim so that it seems only half-present, ghostly, the reflection of its own light behind it, haloing it — shows a clothed man floating underwater through patches of turbulence and patches of still water. This piece was first installed in a chapel in western France; it is meditative and healing, not because it denies life’s pain but because it acknowledges it so fully. Sellars insisted that this piece be shown off-site, where it could reach the suffering masses of non-museumgoers, and in New York it will be at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. “You feel that it is embracing you,” he says. “You behold it and feel that it holds you.”

Jalal ed-Din Rumi, a 13th-century Persian Sufi poet and mystic who is central to Viola’s understanding of the world, wrote, “Increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception.” Bill Viola has by and large allowed new perceptions to generate necessity, finding urgent messages after he has mastered the video technology with which he can express them. “Viola makes use of some of the most sophisticated tools available to artists today,” David Ross says, “with a deep understanding of spiritual matters as well as of how we perceive.” Sellars says: “He’s taken the devil’s instrument — the television set — and said, ‘Well, is beauty still possible?’ It seems that it is.”

The Greeting, from 1995, is Viola’s most refined work. Fascinated by a Pontormo painting of the Visitation, Viola constructed a cityscape based on its background and got three women to enact a simple scene in it. Two of them are talking when the third one joins them. One of the women knows the newcomer; the other appears not to. The action was filmed over 45 seconds but is here slowed down to 10 minutes. You hear only the sound of the wind until the newcomer whispers in the ear of her friend, “Can you help me?” The intensity of the colors, the mysteriousness of the content, the uncanny steadiness of the image and the almost incredible beauty of the composition give you the feeling that you are watching a painting that moves.

People tend to move through museums fast, but Viola’s work slows them down. In He Weeps for You, people spend two minutes to watch a drop fall; in Room for St. John, they spend three or four to figure out what’s going on. Almost everyone who walks into the room where The Greeting is being shown stays through a full 10-minute cycle, transfixed as though watching an action film. It is the opposite of those biology-class filmstrips in which a tomato plant grows and bears fruit in four minutes. Seeing it, I felt as though I had been sensitized to small, slow things, as though I had been Zen inoculated against the rushing world. Viola’s work is moral, but, unlike the less successful work of many other video artists, it is not moralizing. It does not take advantage of the evangelical potential of TV; it does not rub your nose in tragedies of which you are already aware; it awakens you to what is within you as much as it forces anything from outside.

The Crossing, from 1996, was shown in 1997 at the Guggenheim Museum SoHo. It will return to New York for the Whitney show. You stand in a dark room with a 14-foot-high, double-sided screen. On either side of the screen, you see something moving toward you. As it comes closer, you see that it is a man. He stops, life-size, and stares out at you. On one side of the screen, a drop of water falls on his head, as from a dripping faucet. On the other, a tiny flame appears at his feet, as though a match had been dropped. Over the next 10 minutes, the water builds to a rushing Niagara, the flames to a terrifying conflagration, and the figures are obliterated. Then very slowly the water trails off to a drip. The fire dies down. The men have vanished. The flame is extinguished. The water stops. And then you see the image of something moving toward you.

“The veneer of technology,” Viola says, “is so sensual that people in our gizmo-crazy American culture can just take pleasure in the form. But it’s what’s in the container we’re dealing with — not whether it’s a Styrofoam or ceramic or metal cup. Van Eyck was an incredible craftsman working with the most advanced image-making system on the planet at that time — he was using high-definition. I get into that. But as I’ve gained more command, the technology begins to fade, to become transparent. And that’s a wonderful process. The work gets so much more subtle at that point. The violence of a man being consumed by fire or water is mitigated because this is also a process of purification, a life process, an eternal process with a continual rebirth.”

Sellars didn’t want to show the newest work. “Bill is now kind of a senior, an old master,” he says. “This is a midcareer survey. He kept talking about the importance of showing a new piece, maybe with computer-generated imagery, and I told him that in showing these works together he was creating something we have never seen before.”

This is incontrovertible. Usually, there’s one Viola piece in a museum, and most of the installation is devoted to sequestering it, soundproofing, cutting out light. At the Whitney, 17 installations and 22 videos have been brought into a new orbit. Your vocabulary increases as you go from piece to piece. The pleasures of the individual works, real though they are, are subsumed by a grand world view. Viola uses technology to blur the distinctions between the visible and the invisible, the abstract and the concrete, and in the end you see the invisible sound as surely as you feel the abstract moral philosophy. Going through these works, you lose your sense of time. You seem to go through several cycles of existence, much as, watching a fine play, you may in a few hours experience the events of entire lifetimes.