The Video as Vanitas in Bill Viola’s Barnes Retrospective
Updated: Dec 6, 2019
I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, The Art of Bill Viola, The Barnes Foundation, June 30–September 15, 2019
The words genre-bending, universal, and spiritual capture the tenor of Bill Viola’s videos in the recent Barnes Foundation retrospective, which brought together a concise sampling of his production from the past four decades. Over the course of his lengthy career, the artist has consistently delivered on themes that transcend the human experience. One could argue that Viola’s body of work exists as a vanitas in video form, particularly given the way that he exploits the medium’s unique relationship to time. The smallest detail, every movement, becomes profoundly meaningful; slow-motion adds another dimension to his project of drawing the viewer’s attention to the mundane objects, textures, and activities, that they might otherwise overlook.
His work also reminds us that what is most timely about the reel-based arts is not always timeless. Video has a tendency to show its age, as seen in the dated format of Viola’s work from the 1970s, but also in some of the more decade-specific clothing worn by his actors. The Barnes retrospective revealed that Viola has made a career of questioning what it means to imitate motifs long embedded in human history using a medium that is as time-based as film.
The first room limited one work per wall, each studying a particular spiritual activity or concept in granular detail. Channeling the solemn energy of a sacramental duty, the video Ablutions, 2005 on the first wall prepared the visitor for the journey. In this work two streams of running water appear, each with a nude figure standing behind it, a female on the left, and a male on the right; they slowly step forward to ritually purify their hands. After a minute or two it becomes quite clear that there is not going to be any kind of dramatic, climactic action. The viewer must psychically submit to the simple movements that make up this pious exercise. Ablutions was the first of two perfectly-matched bookends complementing the video installation on display in the final gallery, another water-based work: He Weeps for You, 1976, an elegiac video stripping Viola’s project to its most elemental. A large screen displayed the drop-by-drop trickle of water from a pipe. Accompanied by a live drum timed to beat in unison with the image, the pairing magnified the drip, drip, drip of water from the spout, allowing vibrations to fill the room and enter the body.
Viola’s videos rely heavily upon the affective emotional correspondences that can arise between viewer and viewed. This is especially true in Observance, 2002, which just like Ablutions on the opposing wall, effects a self-conscious realization about the act of bearing witness. Presenting a line of mourners from the perspective of the mourned, Observance offers a glimpse of something that normally goes unseen. Each person filing through took their turn at the front, articulating their anguish through their facial and bodily responses. There is also something manipulative about the fact that this work is both incredibly affecting and also clearly staged. It has the ingredients to inspire a very human, emotional response, but one that is punctuated by the intermittent realization that the subjects responsible for the compelling expressions of grief in this scene are really "on the clock."
In his revisitation of Old Master genres, Viola finds ways to refresh well-trod tropes while also exploiting the capacity for duration that is only possible in video. Catherine’s Room, 2001 provides a glimpse into the mundane activities that fill a life dedicated to religious observation. The artist claimed to have been influenced by vignettes of the lives of saints that often appear on altarpiece predellas. Indeed, “Catherine” appears to be in the process of preparing those everyday activities normally immortalized in painted, still form: eating, sewing, praying, sleeping; subject matter which also calls to mind the simplicity of a Baroque-era genre scene. Unlike the slice-of-life snapshot that you get in a work by Johannes Vermeer, Viola included everything: the boredom of simple daily tasks captured in their unending duration.
It is his ten-minute-long video The Greeting, 1995, however, that consumed all of the oxygen in the room. Viola based its composition on Jacopo da Pontormo’s Visitation, 1528, a painting which made its US debut in the Morgan Library in New York last year. In his video version of the Mannerist masterpiece, Viola rendered Pontormo’s implicit motion real, and in the process identified a contemplative mode that can only be experienced in recorded media. He bridged the gap between those narrative formulas that have been ingrained into the imagination of western viewer and video’s ability to ceaselessly suspend and reloop time. Thus, the attention-span-defying cadence of this extended “greeting” makes it impossible to derive satisfaction from the storyline alone, an effect that Viola further complicated with the addition of sound. From the actual verbal exchange, slowed to an eerie and inaudible pace, only ghost-like traces of a conversation remain, like the satanic ramblings of a record player. This is the magic of video. We may essentially know what is about to happen, but in manipulating his recordings as he does, Viola shifts the drama away from the narrative action and onto the details of this interaction: the facial expressions, the extended looks, and all other elements essential to human contact.
Anxiety is another vein that courses through Viola’s work. Ascension, 2000 had a dedicated room, wherein for an extended period of time the museumgoer could stand before an abyss of floating particles and air bubbles. A clothed man suddenly falls into the darkness, holding his body in a conspicuously cruciform shape. He remains anonymous throughout the entire event, his face obscured. Other than a slight bob upward after arriving in the water, the only thing to “ascend” in this video is the mushroom cloud of water escaping his mouth as the figure’s body slowly sinks to the bottom. While it may be obvious that the scene was moving in slow motion, the rapid moving beams of light suggest a relationship to real time.
Pneuma, 1994/2009 induces anxiety of a different kind, by surrounding the visitor with the snowy static of an analog television set. This particular installation plays upon the viewer’s presence before the work in the form of a shadowed silhouette against the wall. Among the intangible, shifting pixels, there is nothing to grasp but the slippery background noises and vague rolling forms that sometimes parallel natural phenomena. Patience is again rewarded; a recognizable picture finally appears. A child sits in their parent’s lap and they light a match. This muffled, fleeting scene is like a memory image floating in a decontextualized ether. It visualizes the untranslatable ancient Greek concept of the “pneuma” (soul or spirit) using the black and white scramble of the terrestrial television format. By virtue of its inclusion in the retrospective, this installation operated an a more nostalgic level, one that engages multiple meanings of memory – as it relates to everything from mental images to outmoded media.
As made evident in this retrospective’s effective and affective arrangement, Viola’s work communicates through the poetics of obsolescence. His work concerns itself with time as it relates to tradition, but also to technology, reminding viewers that the physical and material status of his medium is in a constant state of flux. The fact that Viola’s videos also have a lifespan affected by these changes, underscore their degradable, temporary, sand-mandala-like beauty.