Bill Viola

Article excerpt

Marilyn A. Zeitlin, ed., Bill Viola: Venice Biennale 1995. Tempe: Arizona State University Art Museum, Nelson Fine Arts Center, 1995. 56 pp.; 24 color ills., 2 b/w. L10,000 paper

Exhibition schedule: United States Pavilion, Giardini di Castello, Venice, June 11-October 15, 1995

Within the last eight years Bill Viola's work has been the subect of three substantial solo catalogues and several smaller publications. During this period his installations have greatly increased in number and have exerted a powerful presence within the art world. The considerable research this publication under review contains provides everything needed to extract a brief overview of his work-the stated aim of this modest catalogue. Strange, then, that so many basic points concerning Viola's long career are absent from it, and that we are left with an unclear picture of the nature of this particular exhibition and of the works it contains.

A logical beginning for analysis might have been the exhibition title, Buried Secrets, which Marilyn Zeitlin, commissioner of the much-discussed Venice Biennale show and author of the main catalogue text, ignores completely. Consulting Viola's own working drawings for each piece (placed, curiously, in eight pages at the front of the catalogue, before the title page) for clues, one discovers in the first drawing scribbled in Viola's hand a short quote from the Persian Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273): "When seeds are buried in the dark earth, their inward secrets become the flourishing garden" (p. 2). Viola has long been inspired by Rumi's writings on the concepts of microcosm/macrocosm and the relationship between one's inner life and the outer world. The poet's words reveal not only the key to the exhibition itself, but the essential meaning underlying all Viola's work.

To pursue Rumi's metaphor further, consider the five video installations created specially for the exhibition as seeds buried in the dark earth (or the darkened rooms of the American pavilion), in various stages of germination (or enlightenment). The logic of this idea is borne out by further notes by Viola on his drawings. On the sketch for the first piece, Hall of Whispers, he has scribbled, "Forced Secrets." The closed eyes of the rows of gagged heads imply an internal, contemplative state (fig. 1), seemingly contradicting their apparent efforts to speak. If each piece in the exhibition deals with the invisible inner life within and its external expression in physical and mental terms in the outer world, then perhaps Viola's note suggests not simply the futility or frustration of communication that Zeitlin posits in her essay, but an aspect of an early stage of inner development: what Viola himself has described as "the state of confusion, unclarity and non-understanding that precedes all insights."(1)

It could be that this is, in fact, what Zeitlin meant, but we cannot be sure. Throughout her text we are tantalized by references vaguely introduced but not defined. Toward the beginning of her text, she devotes two pages to discussing the device of stretching time and sound that Viola uses to open up a deeper level of consciousness in the viewer. First she cites three earlier pieces (He Weeps for You, 1976; Anthem, 1983; and Deserts, 1994), but she gives no indication that one is a videotape, one a video installation, and the latter a film (Violas first, shown in Venice to coincide with the opening). The difference between all three is important. It has implications not only for the complex relationship between Viola's videotapes and installations, but also for the role film has played throughout Viola's career. Zeitlin does bring up film as a technical point, explaining that the artist has begun to work with 35-mm high-speed film in order to be able to stretch footage with less loss of resolution. But the roots of Viola's use of film go back much further. He began to study the structure, image, and camera work of such experimental filmmakers as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, and Michael Snow when he was a student at Syracuse University in the early 1970s. …