Hatsu-Yume: Bill Viola at the Mori Museum



After a full day of wandering around Tokyo we ended up at the Mori Museum, which was holding an exhibit of Bill Viola’s video works. I went to the 25-year retrospective of Viola’s works at the SFMOMA in 1999 with my friend James Salazar, and both of us thought that the work that was on display was incredible. I think that what we were both most impressed with was the ability of Viola’s videos to create a space of encounter in which narrativity and signification give way to acts of pure inhabitation. It’s difficult to encounter many of Viola’s large-scale video projections — and his longer, meditative, smaller screen works as well, without some sense of self-detachment, or self-diminishment, in which you disappear into the visual register of the piece itself. Of course, this kind of encounter is only possible if you want to meet the piece on something resembling its own terms — otherwise you can keep yourself wrapped in ego and walk through Viola’s installations in five minutes while proclaiming how slow and boring they are. Or, as one spectator at the Mori put it, while in the process of quickly entering and exiting the room in which The Veiling (1995) was on display, “Oh. It’s that walking man again.”

Quite frankly, I’d rather be rapt than wrapped, and this is exactly the experience I had when encountering The Crossing (1996) for the first time at the SFMOMA. The Crossing, which is one of Viola’s more representational pieces, is a double-sided projection that depicts, on one side, a man walking out of a void, in slow motion, toward the viewer. The man stops, is engulfed in flame, and eventually the body disappears until all that is left is fire. Eventually, the fire dies out, leaving a few flickering tongues before completely disappearing. On the other side of the screen the same man walks forward, but when he stops there are drops of water, is if it’s the beginning of a rainstorm. The water eventually becomes a deluge, like a waterfall, and the body of the man disappears, leaving only the intense force of falling water. Eventually the flood trickles off into a few streams, and then there are only drops, and then nothing. For me, The Crossing is a kind of parable about the relationship between the viewer and the artistic object, and it suggests that the proper kind of encounter with an art object is one in which the boundaries between self and object become so permeable that the self quite literally disappears. In this way Viola’s work reminds me of Nick Dorsky’s Alaya, a 20-minute long, silent meditation on the nature of light and sand (on film, of course — grain and grain). Dorsky’s film — which is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen — cuts, incredibly slowly, between scenes of sand dunes and sand patterns filmed at various distances, in various lights, and at various times of year to create a “mind of sand” that is also a mind of the way film itself recreates sand as light. Of course, Dorsky was, at least at the time, adamantly opposed to the medium of video. He thought of the difference between naturally reflected light (film) and directly radiated light (video and television) as fundamental and irreducible. In a conversation held years ago, I remember Dorsky talking about being in a hospital and seeing a television set perched above the bed of a patient who was screaming silently in pain, bathed in cathode light. For Dorsky, this was a parable about the destructive force of video images.

I don’t agree entirely with Dorsky’s views about the fundamental differences between film and video, especially because I think that much of Viola’s video work manages to create some of the same spaces for encounter that’s made available in Dorsky’s films (and now that I think about it, many of Viola’s video works are, in fact, projected and viewed as reflected light, rather than beamed from a cathode ray tube). An especially beautiful piece by Viola is his 1995 piece, The Veiling, in which two video projectors on opposite sides of the room project their images onto a series of thin, lacy screens that hang from the ceiling and off of the ground in such a way that they form an enormous floating cube in the center of the room. The projections on these screens interact at different levels and with different densities, forming an incredible layering effect. Images, which include forests at night, moving water, and a man and a woman walking toward the camera, merge and transform along with a set of manipulated field recordings to create a kind of other consciousness, a cube of dreaming. Dream consciousness is also central to Viola’s2001 Five Angels for the Millennium, a series of incredibly slowed down images of a body falling into a pool of water at night, but reversed so that instead of falling the body bursts, fully formed, blasting into the air as if defying all restraint. This very simple idea — the reversed image of a body falling into a pool of water — produces an incredibly beautiful and powerful sequence that embodies within itself the meanings that it wants to project.

Dorsky’s skepticism about the cathode ray tube does, however, raise questions about the relationship between technology and art that are important to my critique of several of Viola’s other pieces on display at the Mori. In particular, a series of ultra-slow LCD and plasma display images of peoples’ faces, and sometimes entire bodies, captured in the middle of extreme expressions of emotion — crying, screaming, agonizing, etc. The motion is so slowed down that sometimes you can’t be sure if an image is moving at all, until you watch the blink unfold. These images are intended to be pieces that allow us to meditate on the nature of emotion, encountering it in an unfamiliar state so that we can contemplate it on a different register. Unfortunately, however, the effect is rather that of a Discovery Channel special where whiz-bang technology allows us to ‘see’ something that’s impossible to see with the human eye, giving us the frisson of an alien encounter. In the case of science specials, of course, the point is to impart valuable information by expanding our visual capabilities in such a way that new data is made accessible to us. Viola’s work, on the other hand, ends up restricting our contemplation of emotion to the level of a kind of technological trick. Isn’t it neat to see people scream in hi-def slo-mo? And how very real they look! The problem here is that emotion doesn’t exist in some ‘pure’ state where we can contemplate it without complication (Viola even places his figures against flat, nondescript backgrounds like the kind they use for high school portraits). Emotion is the result of narrativity, of social and political context, of individual psychological makeup, of the fact that you just lost your job and your best friend is dying of cancer in the hospital and your life feels like you’re an unmarked brick in a mostly empty cardboard box that’s sealed up in a dark, dusty, and dank-smelling warehouse. Without these contextual cues what you end up looking at is, like the flat screens they appear on, flat bodies that have no depth at all.

The most dire of these pieces is Viola’s 2004 The Raft, which is clearly intended as a reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th. As The Raft begins, unsuspecting ‘citizen’ actors begin to file onto the video stage. They are of all races, ages, and ethnicities, and they eventually form a group that stands in front of the camera, as if they were waiting for the bus. Instead of a bus, a stream of high-pressure water jets from the left-hand side of the screen (is it a fire hose?) and knocks the people over, in incredible slow motion. We can watch the people struggle against the pressure of the water, slip, cry out, try to help one another, act astonished and surprised, and eventually gather themselves back together once the water has stopped. Viola’s piece clearly references Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa and both pieces are intended to portray/investigate the nature of the social body at moments of intense suffering. The difference between the two pieces, however, is that Géricault’s painting clearly gives the context of the raft in order to tie the horrors depicted in the painting to the wider context of the scandal of maritime incompetence that was behind the deterioration of the social to the point of murder and cannibalism. Viola’s piece, on the other hand, presents us with an abstracted multicultural canvas that is supposed to be representative of a kind of universality, but instead ends up abstracting the social body to the point of meaninglessness. The attacks of September 11 weren’t the equivalent of some kind of unforeseen natural catastrophe. Instead they were the result of a chain of complex social, political, and historical events with very specific agents and meanings (the history of colonialism in the Middle East, U.S. policies toward and relations with the Arab world, fundamentalist Islamic resistance cells, etc., etc., etc., etc.). To erase this context is to create a kind of anti-meaning that adds nothing to an understanding of either the events of September 11th, or the massive amounts of suffering that have resulted following those events.

The Hatsu-Yume exhibit can no longer be seen at the Mori, but it will be at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art until March 21st, and I highly recommend a visit. Despite my reservations about some of the pieces on display, Viola’s work deserves to be seen and encountered. Some of the pieces on display are as beautiful and moving as anything I’ve ever seen, in addition to being wonderfully disarming and self-othering (and that’s the kind of thing I like!). If you do go to this exhibit, be prepared to spend long periods of time with each piece, sitting on the floor and watching for up to 20 minutes at a time (or more!). Walking quickly through a Viola exhibit is to miss the point entirely — you should watch until the point of dreaming, until your consciousness begins to make trails on its own, leaving your you behind.

Click here for Bill Viola’s website.

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