This article traces the many Sufi subtexts in Bill Viola's video art with a view to better understanding the relationship within his work between the sacred and the individual. Drawing on the theory of the genesis of the individual in anthropological analyses and critical theory, the author analyzes Viola's metaphors and leitmotifs and how the artist tests the limits of knowledge and the self as well as the real in which they are inscribed.
This article will explore Bill Viola's practice of video art as a means of re-inscribing art within its oldest known function: locating the spaces of the sacred. Whether he is translating Ibn 'Arabi's hira (bewilderment) into the spinning of a DVD or rendering Wagner's Liebestod into a fall into paradise, Viola uses the oscillation between text, sound, and image as a means of foregrounding the religions purpose of art (Viola, "LOVE/DEATH"). Viola's preoccupations and technique aim at re-endowing contemporary video art with that ability to explore the sacred via the manifestations of the divine in the world, framing his images in texts and ideas drawn from vast corpora of religious and mystical writings. My concern here will be mainly with Viola's use of Sufism, as Viola's engagements with other religious traditions have been successfully traced elsewhere, not least by Viola himself (King; Ten Groetenhuis; Townsend; Madema-Lauter; Viola, Reasons 98-111, 153-72, 282-83). I will argue that Viola's engagement with mysticism and appeal to a pre-avant-garde function of art are related to the understanding of the "rear"--in the Platonic sense of the term, God--to which the privileged paths of access are art and religion rather than science. For Viola, "contemplative vision" is the "original source of mae and balanced art--the original realism" (Viola, Reasons 119; Melcher 19-20). What is at stake is less the status of Viola's art as an 'illustration' of certain Sufi themes than the means be employs to project certain aspects of Sufi practice and belief onto a given space--be it that of an installation or videotape. It is less a question of illustration, therefore, than of adaptation; one might say of translation in the sense of displacement, transference, conveyance across places and media, rendering one language (of the experience of the sacred) into another (of the space that sets off a similar experience in the viewer/participant).
Sufism and Individualism
By his own account, Viola's turn to mysticism in general, and Sufism in particular, occurred around the time of his stay in Japan in 1980. Having followed the teachings of Daisetz Suzuki, he decided to explore art that would aim at perfecting the self rather than perfecting the world. In an interview with film director Mark Kidel, Viola locates the first tangible results of this shift in his 1983 installation Room for St. John of the Cross (Kidel). However, a cursory glance at his collected writings, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, finds a description of an earlier installation, Il Vapore, coupled with an extract from Rumi that provided the inspiration for the piece:
Though water be enclosed in a reservoir Yet air will absorb it, for it is its supporter; It sets it free and bears it to its source, Little by little, so that you see not the process. In like manner, this breath of ours by degrees Steals away our souls from the prison house of earth.
(Viola, Reasons 38)
Whether or not Viola designed Il Vapore to be an 'illustration' of the poem in question is uncertain: What is clear is that the tendency towards mystical modes had been working its way through Viola's psyche for some time before 1983.
The interest of mysticism inheres in its making available the discourse and mode of individuality, thereby allowing the mystic to say, 'I' in ways that would not otherwise make sense socially and psychologically. Louis Dumont has made the case for the genesis of the individual in an extra-social space, outside the bounds of society, seeing in the earliest Asian ascetics the first examples of what we would recognize as individuals in a time and place that did not necessarily identify the 'individual' in the modem sense of the term (Dumont 35-81). The ascetic swaps her/his social obligations for a singular devotion to a tutelary deity, thereby opening up the possibility of autonomies undreamed of in the traditional social fabric, where everything is defined in hierarchical terms. The individual is thus born outside the world (and consequently named the 'other-wordly individual'--'l'individu-hors-du-monde'). The history of Western society over the past millennium is precisely the history of the migration of this extra-social bubble containing the individual from the margin to the center of society, at which point the individual becomes society's norm rather than its exception.
Various aesthetic practices accompany this migration. Thomas Pavel has argued that the novel is the genre that bespeaks the genesis and establishment of the individual in the West, seeing in the division between the individual and the social and moral environment the central question that drives novelistic writing from Heliodorus to the present day:
Au moyen de la coupure qu'il pose entre le protagoniste et son milieu, le roman est le premier genre a s'interroger sur la genese de l'individu et sur l'instauration de l'ordre commun. Il pose surtout, et avec une acuite inegalee, la question axiologique qui consiste a savoir si l'ideal moral fait partie de l'ordre du monde: car s'il en fait partie comment se fait-il que le monde soit, au moins en apparence, si eloigne de lui, et s'il est etranger au monde, d'ou vient que sa valeur normative s'impose avec une telle Evidence l'individu? Dans le roman, genre qui considere l'homme par le biais de son adhesion a l'ideal, poser la question axiologique revient a se demander si, pour defendre l'ideal, l'homme doit resister au monde, s'y plonger pour y retablir l'ordre moral ou enfin s'efforcer de remedier a sa propre fragilite, si, en d'autres termes, l'individu peut habiter le monde ou il voit le jour. (Pavel 46-47)
Bill Viola is not a novelist, of course, but his work is driven by related concerns. For him, art is an exploration of individuality and the concomitant rituals that make it possible. On these points his declarations are characteristically forthright: "I think that all art, to be honest, must be a form of individual practice ... and not a form of address to an audience" (Viola, Reasons 280). Although one might cavil with the reality of such formulations--art does need viewers, after all--the statement is remarkable for its defiance of the dynamics of art as a contemporary Western institution (Wagner). Furthermore, Viola foregrounds the function of art as ritual, which he describes as "function in the original sense of art" which "you can use to learn something in your life, to go deeper" (Viola, Reasons 282). Viola unabashedly situates this learning process within a genealogy that combines mysticism and art:
Actually I can see a strong connection between the outstanding mystics and artists.... The basic tenets of the via negativa are the unknowability of God; that God is wholly other, independent, complete; that God cannot be grasped by the human intellect, cannot be described in any way; that when the mind faces the divine reality, it becomes blank. It seizes up. It enters a cloud of unknowing. When the eyes cannot see, then the only thing to go on is faith, and the only true way to approach God is from within.... The essence here is the individual faith, and as God is said to reside within the individual, many aspects of it bear close resemblance to Eastern concepts and practices.... I relate to the role of the mystic in the sense of following a via negativa--of feeling the basis of my work to be in unknowing, in doubt, in being lost, in questions and not answers--and that recognizing that personally the most important work I have done has come from not knowing what I was doing at the time I was doing it. (Viola, Reasons 246, 249, 250)
Viola's reliance on, and engagement with, mysticism, therefore, has much to do with his interest in the individual as such, and, more specifically, with the termini that define and delimit the individual's existence. Marie Luise Syring sees …