Bill Viola: Allegories in Subjective Perception

Article excerpt

I was making my way in search of adventures, fully armed as a knight should be, when I came upon a road leading off to the right into a thick forest. The road there was very bad, full of briars and thorns. In spite of the trouble and inconvenience, I followed the road and path.--Chretien de Troyes(1)

I've learned so much through my video work far more than what I need to practice my profession. The real investigation is of life and being itself, the medium is just the tool in this investigation.--Bill Viola(2)

Bill Viola has pursued his investigation into human consciousness with a concentration and intensity that can only be termed (dare one use the word?) heroic. Viola's video installations posit a conceptual and experiential center, shared by viewer and artist, that is a matter of conscience as well as consciousness. Viola understands the interactive relationship in art between observer and observed not simply in terms of the epistemology of knowledge in an age of "deconstruction," but equally as an ethical issue in which the artwork is the object of discourse among the artist and the community.(3)

To enter one of the carefully prepared darkened spaces of a Viola video installation, and to encounter there his conjunction of distilled and deeply evocative images and objects and sounds, is an experience that registers as being intensely private, as if it were an encounter or dream unique to oneself. In Room for St. John of the Cross (fig. I), the darkened space is filled with a chaotic roar, while bouncing and swirling images of a large mountain are seen projected on one wall. In the center of the space is an enclosed miniature chamber with a small window through which one can see a table with a tiny monitor showing the static image of a mountain. Barely audible in the chamber is the whispered poetry of love and flights of ecstasy written by the sixteenthcentury Spanish mystic while he was imprisoned and tortured in such a confined room. The chaos in the darkened space, with its oppressive sound and unstable projected images, gives way, as one approaches the chamber window, to an intensely meditative calm.

Anyone entering one of Viola's installation spaces will encounter more or less the same visual and auditory environment as anyone else, orchestrated, of course, by the artist.

Yet the actual experience of one of these works is as if the revelatory moment of indefinitely extended duration, so characteristic of Viola's installations, had been one's own. This aspect of Viola's installations is noted in the critical writings on Viola that in many cases use the analogy of dreams.(4)

Viola's videotapes, though sharing a creative vision with the installations, are necessarily different because one looks at the single videotape image on a screen rather than moving physically through the space of an installation. Viola rarely alters or electronically manipulates his videotape images, although they are sometimes softened because of camera movement, as in Vegetable Memory (1978-80) and The Passing (1991), or atmospheric phenomena, as in Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) (1979). The implication that the camera image is a document, a direct impression of reality, is balanced by Viola's decisions about framing (iconic symmetry or obsessive hand-held pursuit), about movement and stasis, about generated and reflected light that give his videotape images a transcendent quality. More intensely present in viewing than ordinary physical reality, these images take on the force of archetypes. Each precisely distilled image of the people, the animals, the landscapes, and the natural phenomena in Viola's tapes is not so much visual description as it is revelation. The astonishingly painterly images of the shimmering desert landscape in Chott el-Djerid, the mysterious places and people in Hatsu Yume (First Dream) (1981), the mythic creatures that populate I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986), all have a powerful and compelling presence on the screen that transcends physical documentation. …