Moving images that freeze time

The work of US video artist Bill Viola, on show in Paris, has an otherworldly quality that astonishes

Mon, Mar 24, 2014, 01:00

The silhouette of a woman emerges from a wall of fire, then collapses headfirst into a reflecting pool. The flames subside into electric-blue ripples, signifying the end of desire.

In another video by the US artist Bill Viola, bubbles rising from a corpse lying on a slab of stone build to a reverse waterfall that eventually lifts the body heavenward – the ascension of the soul after death.

More than 30 screens are included in the Grand Palais retrospective of Viola’s work, some small, some monumental. Human figures advance in slow motion through the heat of a desert mirage, come together and part. Nine transparent veils hang from the ceiling in another room, where projectors throw ghostly images of a man and woman starting at opposite ends, walking towards one another, melding in a flash of light.

Viola’s work is about fire, water, birth, death, journeys, meetings and partings – virtually every human experience except sex.

“Viola touches on universal aesthetic forms and themes,” says Jérôme Neutres, the curator of the exhibition, which covers four decades of the preeminent video artist’s work, at the Grand Palais in Paris until July 21st. “As with all great moments in art, there is something here that touches everyone. Viola’s art is an emotion machine.”

Viola’s art also represents a kind of fusion culture, blending Buddhist mysticism, the Italian quattrocento, the experimentalism of Viola’s video precursors Nam June Paik and Andy Warhol, the attitude of the Haight Ashbury-Woodstock generation. It’s not surprising that it’s produced in California, the tectonic plate where US and European culture meet Asia – and which never forgot the 1960s.

At the press conference launching his exhibition, Viola doesn’t talk about the instruments he uses, including an old bank surveillance camera he likes because it creates grainy images, and infra-red night vision equipment. He doesn’t tell us how he designed the eight-metre-high tree with holes in the branches – a giant gas-burner – to create the wall of flame in Fire Woman (2005). He doesn’t explain how a tsunami sweeps through a house, bursting through windows, spitting out humans and furniture, in Going Forth By Day (2002), which required 120 technicians and more than 200 actors.

In the course of a 45-minute peroration, Viola tells us there are three parts to humanity: “The unborn people that will come after us, the dead to whom we pay our respects all the time” and “Another place – the middle one. That’s us: the living.”

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