Adapting Sufism to Video Art: Bill Viola and the Sacred

By Elmarsafy, Ziad | Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview
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Adapting Sufism to Video Art: Bill Viola and the Sacred

Elmarsafy, Ziad, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

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).

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