Bill Viola

Art Monthly, Issue 173, February, 1993.

Bill Viola: Unseen Images is at the Whitechapel Gallery, London until February 13 The exhibition tours to Tel Aviv this summer.

Confronted by the huge back-projected video images of the Nantes Triptych it is impossible to ignore the raw emotional power of the sequences Bill Viola shows at the Whitechapel. Slowly unfolding images of actual birth and death flank a central panel depicting a ‘helpless’ male observer, floating in a hazy monochrome void. In the Nantes Triptych Viola seems reduced to a mere presenter of near-documentary footage. In this context Viola’s stated attitude to his medium is significant. He believes that ‘the raw material is not the camera and monitor, but time and experience itself’ He states that the work ‘exists not on the screen or the walls of the room, but in the heart and mind of the person who has seen it’ Despite this claim for the interactive power of unmediated and authentic footage, the experience of helplessness is somehow extended to the viewer. As a passive observer witnessing the death of his mother, I was forced into the role of voyeur and left hovering in an uncomfortable territory between expression and exploitation. The dramatic scale of the installation created a disturbing spectacle that I felt excluded from – floating in my own void within the anonymous gallery space of the Whitechapel. The raw material of video may well be characterised as ‘experience’, but in gallery art the medium has significant intrinsic characteristics. Not only this, but the ‘heart and mind’ of the viewer is not a blank canvas – we come to the work with our own personal and cultural baggage. The artist is also able to manipulate factors which include space, acoustics, duration, sequence and scale which can now mimic the impact of film. All this can dramatically alter the meaning of that ‘raw’ experience and in this respect Viola is a skilful director How-ever, sometimes it backfires. The intimate and private images of the Nantes Triptych seemed swollen and distorted solely in order to dominate the gallery space.
The exhibition presents a series of closely related installations which form a virtual ‘family’ of works. Chronologically close, they share many images; there is a carefully considered relationship between the works, as if they were constructed as individual elements within a sequence.
One of the central themes of ‘Unseen Images’ is the relationship between mind and body. Viola wants to examine what he feels is an overlooked aspect of electronic media – its physicality. His intention is to evoke an emotional response as an important step in reintegrating ‘mind, being and self’ He believes that the challenge for contemporary artists is to ‘bring analytical skills to bear on the perceptual physiological language of the image’. This is underpinned by a desire to acknowledge and embrace millennia of Buddhist and Hindu philosophical speculation. He points towards the recent shift in theoretical physics towards an acknowledgement of the relationship between the nature of matter and human consciousness. Viola is drawn to mystics from both hemispheres because he sees parallels between creative religious experience and the potential for art to act as a transcendental medium.
Viola has a particular notion of acoustical space and understands sound as both an object and a physical force. This concept provides a model for his installations which are designed to engage the viewer both physically and emotionally. As a result, he speaks of scenes before his camera as ‘fields’ rather than ‘points of view’ Thus Viola’s concern to link physical and material existence to abstract, inner phenomena has evolved out of a recognition of the unique properties of sound.

The approach to image as ‘field’ is discernible in What is Not and That Which Is. Reversing the scale of the Nantes Triptych, we are faced with seven tiny wall-mounted projectors, throwing images onto diminutive back-projection screens. Here the viewer is drawn in by the intimate scale and the subject matter – miniature image and sound cycles depicting powerful natural forces such as gravity, time, heat, and light which in turn imply physical experience. These jewel-like images rather more successfully evoke human experience than the visual bombardment of the triptych. Similarly the more sympathetic scale of Heaven and Earth reworks the life and death polarity of the Nantes Triptych to greater effect. Here, the silent opposing images of newborn and dying are displayed in a powerfully simple and poetic form, the poignancy of these moments is preserved and celebrated.
One of the most satisfying works within the exhibition is Slowly Turning Narrative. A large screen is rotating in the centre of the darkened gallery space. One side of the screen is mirrored and reflects the images, the other side displays them as they are projected from two opposing points. The experience of this piece is overwhelming. Here the scale of the work does not alienate and the viewer is quite literally drawn into the centre of the swirling imagery as it is reflected and distorted around the gallery walls. The chanting and rhythmic soundtrack reinforces the sense of physical and emotional involvement. In this work Viola gets closest to his stated objective of creating images which will live on in the hearts and minds of those who have seen them.
What seems to have been left out of many discussions of Viola’s work are the more recent art-historical precedents and influences. We see his work in the context of an aesthetic which has developed in both American Underground film and Structural/Materialist film and video work from the 1970s and 80s. This is especially significant in relation to Viola’s use of duration as ‘physical’ experience which echoes the work of Michael Snow and Peter Gidal. Viola’s images of birth and death draw on films by Stan Brakhage such as Window, Water; Baby Moving and Sirius Remembered. The use of water as a medium has an especially rich tradition. Chris Welsby’s installation and film work in the 1970s is just one example.
Viola’s imagery also has important precedents in the feminist insistence on an examination of the ‘personal’, often very specifically via bodily experiences. Works featuring pregnancy and relationships to children were especially significant in the work of artists such as Susan Hiller and Mary Kelly. British video artists such as Kate Meynell and Catherine Elwes have focused on their own children. In this context Elwes’ video image of her son submerged in (Wishing) Well seems particularly relevant.
‘Unseen Images’ is an important and exciting exhibition. Its impact will be even more significant if it prompts an examination and evaluation of the work by other video artists who have matured alongside and concurrently with Bill Viola. Taken together with the recent major video installation exhibitions of Tony Oursler at the Ikon and the Bluecoat, Gary Hill at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford and the Liverpool Tate, the spotlight has been on the work of American male artists. Clearly it is now time to provide increased opportunities for the support, funding and exhibition of British video installation.