Bill Viola: First Encounter
The Royal Academy of Arts opened the exhibition ‘Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth’ last weekend. I will leave the part on Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) to art historians as his 16thcentury chalk sketches, borrowed from the Queen’s collection, are considered unsurpassed in their brilliance of execution and intellectual sophistication. I wouldn’t dare to add anything else.
The other artist of the exhibition duet, shame to admit, was unknown to me. To be honest with you, as much as I wanted to write a review on this exhibition quicker than Guardian or the Independent, I haven’t looked at any material before entering the exhibition. I wasn’t prepared. I wasn’t prepared for the cinematic size of the videos, the non-trivial setup of the video screening or the topic of works, which was clearly suggested in the title. Thus, here I will briefly go through the background of the artist and the projects shown in the exhibition.
Video art is terra incognita to me. I even skipped last year’s Turner Prize, pretending I’m against the single-paced and medium specific exhibition, which instead of presenting the variety of the best of contemporary British-based art, shortlisted only films. Still, to explore something new is always tempting, especially when the artist is widely acclaimed for his work. Bill Viola (b. 1951) is a pioneer of video art and moving image, investigating the cycles of life. Following the introduction of affordable video equipment in the 1960s, he started exploring the medium in 1970. To keep a track of events, according to Google, Steven Sasson, an engineer at Eastman Kodak, invented and built the first self-contained electronic camera that used a charge-coupled device image sensor in 1975.
Within the development of technology, Viola’s works moved from black-and-white to slow-motion, high-definition images. But it is usually more compelling when you, as a viewer, become a part of the work. A slowly turning screen occupies the entire room for Slowly Turning Narrative (1992) (Figure 1). On the one side, an image of the artist is projected, as he is meditatively reciting words of different states of being. On the other side of the screen, there is a mirror reflecting the light from this projector and from a second projection with grainy pictures onto the gallery walls. Also, the three colours – red, blue, green – are projected on the screen. At the particular time, the viewer too is reflected in the mirror.
The Sleep of Reason (1988) (Figure 2) to enter the room where the physical presence of the body overlaps with what lies beneath. An intimate environment of an ordinary domestic place is disturbed by irregular and alternating images of sounds: body in the water, a deer in the woods, an owl with wings wide open, etc. The title is borrowed from a work by Francisco Goya, that also questions the irrational world of dreams.
Another video installation left me thinking about slicing. As strange as it appears, Damien Hirst has definitely implemented it in his work: slicing a cow as a unit and as familial relation. But have you ever thought of slicing a video? To my way of thinking, in The Veiling (1995) (Figure 3) Bill Viola achieved cross-sectioning of the moving image. Two channels of colour video projections from opposite sides of a large dark gallery through nine large thin veils suspended from ceiling; two channels amplified mono sound, four speakers. A man and woman each appear on separate opposing video channels, and, it looks, they walk towards each other in various nocturnal landscapes, at times they appear to meet, yet they are left alone in their search through darkness.
In all of Viola’s videos, the focus lies on a body in an extreme state – whether the person is sleeping, meditating, wandering, searching, swimming, drowning, floating, giving birth, being born or dying. The latter three are empowered in Nantes Triptych (1992), showing a young woman giving birth, Viola’s own mother dying, and a floating body in between. Combining his own documented experience with the intimate performances, Viola explores the physical presence of a body and the transition between states: from conscious to sub-/unconscious, from the material to the spiritual.
An appreciation for Old Masters, medieval and Renaissance art, and deep engagement with Buddhism, Sufism and Christian mysticism reflect on Viola’s works. Direct referencing through the titles or explored topics and questions of rebirth, reincarnation suggest the background to his works. Non-exception is the four elements that ancient Greeks believed explain the complexity of nature. Earth, air, fire and, especially, water are fundamental to his work. As a child, 6 years old at that time, the artist almost drowned, but instead of being frightened by this experience, he found it eyes-opening: it was the most beautiful world he had ever seen, kind of paradise. The artist understood that the most beautiful, important things are under the surface. In his works water serves a purifying force, a metaphor for life and being, for transcendence.
If you are going to make true art, it [life, family, everyday experience and video art] has to be one thing. You can’t keep those things apart if you want to live your life to the fullest.
Bill Viola, from his interview
Viola felt that home videos should be kept separately to his artwork, but his mother’s death changed his opinion. He realized that it could not be separated. He believes that the cameras are keepers of the souls, and this medium continue to evolve and holds onto life after something finishes. Through his works Viola marks the lifeline of his own world, experience and understanding.
bill viola / michelangelo: life, death, rebirth
Royal Academy of Arts
London, W1J 0BD
26 Jan 2019 - 31 Mar 2019