On one of the 15 screens currently playing the videos of Bill Viola at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami, three women, filmed in black and white, very slowly make their way forward. In the middle of the nine-minute piece, the lead woman, maybe the mother, is drenched in water, emerging to the foreground in full color. She holds the hand of the next woman, pulling her toward the light. Finally the youngest emerges as well, wet but no longer deluged. At one point they are standing in front of the viewer, their faces reflecting the intense transformation they have just experienced.
All the components from Three Women add up to a perfect example of what makes Viola’s videos so powerful and stunning, and why he is not only considered one of the founding fathers of video art but one of its true masters.
The last time this many works from Viola were shown in the United States in one exhibition was in 1997 at the Whitney Museum in New York, and almost all of the videos in Bill Viola: Liber Insularum were created after that. In fact, 2012’s Ancestors, which depicts a couple walking out of a desert mirage, is making its world premiere. Like Three Women, Ancestors reveals imagery and themes fundamental to Viola’s work that stem from his deep spiritual and philosophical beliefs.
In town to guide the installation of his show, Viola discussed his life and his art and how they are intricately entwined. A man of the digital age who works in a medium not even known a century ago, he says he is not afraid of technology but believes we are moving rapidly to an isolated existence, to the great detriment of humanity. The references to baptismal rebirth (often through water) and to Eastern philosophies are some of the ways he addressed a need to get back to feelings and awareness.
“We are living in an extraordinary time,” says the artist, born in Queens, N.Y., in 1951. “But today it is too easy to push a button [for a result]; we need to go inside ourselves, rediscover emotions.”
This particular exhibition was curated around a 15th century Florentine book that inspired Viola, The Book of Islands; the exhibit opened in the Canary Islands of Spain. These pockets of geographical isolation equate to our spiritual isolation, and Viola clearly wants no man to be an island — in that he is very passionate about this artistic mission.
His videos elicit a range of emotions from the viewer. On the one hand they are somber in tone and look. Almost all are filmed in slow motion, with actors who never smile, as though they are perpetually lost and lonely. But then something happens to break that state, and the characters seem to be released.
Roc Laseca, a native of the Canary Islands and the curator for this exhibit, talked about his impressions of Viola’s vision during a walk through the galleries. “People have often mentioned the transcendental aspects of the videos,” he said. “But that can imply something going on beyond, or in an afterlife. Viola is showing the transfiguration going on in the here and now, taking place inside us.” And indeed, in many of the videos the actors are moving forward toward the viewer, almost invading our space by the time they are pictured in close-up. Viola wants us to actively experience their emotions, to be unable to remain unattached or unmoved. “The main action takes place in front of us,” Laseca said.
That is the case in one of the most raw videos here, Observance, from 2002. In color and extreme close-up, a crowd of people files past the camera, their expressions filled with grief. We don’t know what they are looking at (except us), but it seems likely it is meant to be a wake or funeral.
Two pieces with the most dramatic action might also be two of the most familiar to anyone who knows Viola’s work.
One is The Raft from 2004. A cast of 19 represents people from all walks of life — young and old, of different races and color — who are standing and waiting for something, minding their own business in their personal worlds. Suddenly a giant wave, or maybe a blast from a powerful water hose, hits them and their isolation ends as they fall on top of each other. Filmed as usual in extreme slow motion, both the terrifying event and the facial expressions leave a visceral impression. As the water subsides, they continue to touch one another, still confused but somehow changed. An intense soundtrack of rushing water accompanies it.
The 2000 video Ascension is equally powerful but not violent — it is meditative and gorgeous and can be viewed over and over. In this case, the sole character does not come to us, but plunges or falls into an ocean and slowly sinks, likely drowns, while the bubble trails above and around him form beautiful patterns. The figure eventually rises, with an obvious reference not to Eastern spiritualism but to the core of Christianity. It is once again a story of rebirth.
Other videos are almost like lightboxes, with movement and change of color forming a subtle montage. Like Catherine’s Room from 2001, which takes place over five small LCD flat screens during a day. A woman sits doing a household task in a sparsely furnished room. The light is what signals the time of day (or of the season, or of a lifetime). Maybe the most beautiful feature in each is the small window in the upper right corner of the room, which frames a tree branch with a sky that changes from bright blue to a midday white to a lush caramel color.
During much of Viola’s artistic journey, he has been accompanied by his wife and collaborator Kira Perov. This is the case with the latest series, Mirage, of which Ancestors is a part. A couple emerges from a blurred, dusty landscape, coming at us from a mirage — illusion and reality remaining a little fuzzy.
There are many other videos, on small and large screens, some with their own soundtracks and rooms, others sharing their darkened space. The scope and body of work being shown at MOCA is impressive, giving Miami a good opportunity to understand why Viola has helped make video art an integral part of contemporary art, in the best way.