Friday, March 28, 2014

Bill Viola @ Grand Palais

Bill Viola at the Grand Palais. A New York video artist with no connection to France given the first video art retrospective at a French national museum. Who would have thought?  And this is the perfect exhibition space for Bill Viola’s enormous and enduring works. The extremely high ceilings, spacious rooms, and the general sense of scale that anything at the Grand Palais assumes. All of it is the is put in the service of Viola’s art. Twenty video works, the majority of which were exhibited like paintings, on plasma displays mounted on walls,  with no revelation of technical devices, no glitches, this exhibition is both technically and visually perfect. It is an exhibition to go back to again and again.

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Bill Viola, Passage Into Night, 2005
Those who read my blog regularly will know I am a fan of single artist retrospectives, usually because seeing all the work in one place creates resonances and rhymes, revelations and surprises that are otherwise hidden when seeing a single work, whether alone or in a group show. And Viola at the Grand Palais is no exception. In fact, even though I had seen all but the most recent works before, they took on deeper and more complicated meanings when experienced together at the Grand Palais. There is so much to learn about video art and about Viola’s art in particular from visiting this exhibition.
Bill Viola, Four Hands, 2001

Video for Bill Viola is always a journey, an enactment of a process of discovery, which can be physical in its movement across time and space, or more usually, a discovery at the level of consciousness, as the soul moves somewhere it has not yet been before. Viola is an imagemaker who understands, or is in the process of understanding, human being. Viola is interested in transposing the processes and cylces of life to the video medium. And so we see, for example, a man and a woman walk through the desert, in concert, but not together, walking closer together, but never meeting in Walking on the Edge and The Encounter, (2012). Landscape, heat, dust, and the sounds in their midst are the only link between them. And in the masterpieces, for example, Tristan's Ascension (2005), birth, death and the passing from one to the next are revealed across the video loop.

Bill Viola, Tristan's Ascension, 2005
There is a quote at the beginning of the exhibition claiming that Viola is interested in three questions: “who am I, where am I, where am I going?” And in the introduction to his exhibition at the Grand Palais, he begins by announcing that there are three things that are important:  the unborn, the people who come after us, the dead. We see these questions asked and their solutions sought, palpably, in the videos in the exhibition. We see people being formed out of water and disintegrate into fire, we see appearances and disappearances, and we see human figures moving through every nuance of intense human emotion. Often these same emotions are so extreme that the actors and characters in Viola’s art are, or become, visually unappealing because of their inhabitation of their own private self.
Bill Viola, Catherine's Room, 2001
Alternatively, if Viola’s work is not about consciousness, it is about the passing of time: what happens between here and there? How does change, through motion, through transformation, through consciousness, affect us? What will it reveal? This is why Viola’s medium can only ever be video. The video image, like the spaces and processes of nature, and equally, the rituals and rhythms of life, is transient as well as ephemeral. Viola’s image creates the spectre that becomes a searchlight in the journey of discovery in which we are all involved. The Veiling, 1995, comprised of nine scrims, two video laser disc projectors and players, one at either end of a large room, literally brings the search of video, nature, and humans together. Contrary to the questions Viola is quoted as asking, the endpoint is not important. It’s the “how will I get there?,” “what will my journey reveal?” are the questions in the fore of this exhibition.
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Bill Viola, The Veiling, 1995
Something always happens across the length of each video, transformation occurs.  People move, things happen, in slow motion across the course of a day and a night, as water turns to fire before our eyes, without us even knowing how it happened, just as it does in life. And yet, circularity and repetition are everywhere here, beginning with the video loop. In Catherine’s Room, 2001, for example, across the video monitors, day breaks, darkness (night) falls, and the woman in the monk-like cell performs her rituals according to the transformations of and in light. Perhaps it is the other way round? Perhaps life directs the video, the form and the medium that, as early as the 1990s, it was said, mimicked consciousness. Whichever comes first, Viola finds in video those behaviors, beliefs and rhythms that define who we are.
Bill Viola, Going Forth By Day, "The Voyage," 2002
Like any good artist, Viola uses video to discover something that has not yet been thought before. Again, to quote him: “The most important things human beings must do in their lives is to leave something behind … something special, it doesn’t have to be intellectual, it doesn’t have to be spiritual, just something” This experience of a world in which images disintegrate, narratives end in a whimper and people are real, is Viola’s “something” that he gives to us. 

Copyright of images, Bill Viola and Blain Southern Gallery London

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