Post-Traumatic Shock: Bill Viola's Recent Work

By Boyle, Deirdre | Afterimage, September-October 1996 | Go to article overview

Post-Traumatic Shock: Bill Viola's Recent Work


Boyle, Deirdre, Afterimage


When seeds are buried in the dark earth, their inward secrets become the flourishing garden.

- Rumi

Bill Viola's video installation series "Buried Secrets" (1995) is so disturbing that its images and associations still float into my consciousness the way the disturbing parts of dreams resurface unbidden, reminding one of anxieties, unresolved conflicts, deep fears. Unable to attend the premier at the 1995 Venice Biennale, I visited the Arizona State University Art Museum this past spring, where the exhibition, organized by Marilyn Zeitler of Arizona State University, was being presented for the first time in the United States. I emerged from the exhibition's darkened rooms into the bright desert afternoon wondering whose nightmare I was experiencing.

This is not the first time I've felt this confusion, because Viola's installations often deliberately blur the boundaries between self and other. This is most evident in "Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House" (1982), where the spectator seems to merge with Viola as he gazes from a monitor into the viewer's eyes, their separate identities disintegrating as the spectator experiences through amplified sounds the trauma of sudden blows to Viola's head. The installation creates the jarring disorientation of seemingly shared consciousness, and it also demonstrates the controlled rage that has been a root of Viola's art. As I wrote in 1988:

The source of this rage is invariably the split between reason and unreason, between animal and intellectual consciousness, between nature and culture . . . Viola's beautiful images and perceptual paradoxes propose a trenchant philosophical critique of why modern society, and the individual in particular, experiences alienation. Viola simulates the rift between mind and matter - which has characterized modern consciousness since the dawn of the scientific age - and tries to heal that rift by creating restorative participatory experiences.(1)

Viola's installations have been precisely engineered rites of self-discovery leading to a restoration of lost psychic and spiritual balance. But after viewing "Buried Secrets" I felt neither whole nor balanced. If anything I felt more alienated on leaving them than I had on entering. What was happening?

For anyone familiar with Viola's work, there is nothing surprising on the surface about "Buried Secrets," comprised of five video and audio installations and organized at the Arizona State University Art Museum in the following order: "Hall of Whispers," "The Veiling," "Presence," "Interval" and "The Greeting." This is the first time that Viola has developed a series of interlinked installations. Although each work stands alone, viewing them together and in sequence affords a more complex meta-experience. All the airy, "new age" writing that has been occasioned by Viola's metaphysical explorations and spiritual associations withers in the face of this new opus. Only Carl Haenlein, in his general notes on Viola in the exhibition catalog, Bill Viola: Buried Secrets (1995), comments that trauma is the essence of Viola's art and its often disturbing power.(2) To grapple with this art one must confront the traumas that lie buried within one's self as well as the work.

"Hall of Whispers" consists of a series of 10 video projections, five each on the long facing walls of a dark corridor. This black and white gauntlet consists of the life-size heads of men and women who have been bound and gagged. Eyes shut, they struggle against tightly-wrapped cloth bandages but their efforts to speak prove futile; only muffled sounds escape into the room. Because their faces appear to float disembodied in space, they remind me of Gary Hill's haunting 1992 video installation, "Tall Ships." But this is Viola territory where language is never written and rarely spoken.(3)

"Hall of Whispers" announces the underlying concerns of "Buried Secrets": the difficulty, if not impossibility, of communication and the importance of protecting secrets. …

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