Viola, visions and video


Bill Viola is a pioneering video artist whose use of the medium has developed in tandem with video technology. After graduating from art school in 1973 he worked as a video technician, and in his work he’s always pushed the boundaries of what is technically possible. More important, perhaps, is the fact that from the first he’s used video to address many of the big questions about what is generally called the human condition: life and death, perception and reality, love and memory, and, probably most contentiously, spirituality.

Viola is particularly interested in the metaphysical possibilities of several mystical traditions, from Zen Buddhism to the early Christian mystics. Unlike, say, a Renaissance painter who essentially sets out to illustrate and reinforce a received Biblical narrative, Viola approaches spiritual and even religious experiences sympathetically but questioningly, with a view to finding out what they can tell us about being alive, whether they can offer or encourage illumination. Still, the fact that he wholeheartedly embraces the spiritual dimension creates difficulties for some commentators.

The Highlanes Gallery has been screening a cycle of early works by him, five pieces that individually and collectively treat life from birth to death. The central video, Silent Life, from 1979, is mesmerising. The camera focuses successively and intently on newborn babies in the nursery ward of an American hospital as they experience their first minutes and their first day after birth. There’s no commentary, no musical soundtrack, just the matter-of-fact comments of the adept, professional nurses, the clatter of furniture and equipment, and of course the squalling of the babies.

Often, and understandably, they seem startled to be in the world, and not entirely happy about it. They can look, as babies do, both impossibly young and oddly old. When they’re unsettled, they’re not afraid to show it. The sense of nascent but utterly determined consciousness is amazing. At the same time, the medical apparatus and the troubled, uncertain expression on the faces of several babies strike an ominous note. Vulnerability is there from the start. Death shadows life.

One step back from Silent Life is the mother, as encapsulated in Moonblood, which begins with the image of a young woman silhouetted against a window. Her modern, urban being is briskly subsumed into her biological being as she becomes the focus and embodiment of natural cycles and energies. They are visualised as the torrential rush of water in a mountainous setting and then, characteristically of Viola, in a vision of utter stillness as a glass of water – a vessel – in a desert landscape.

In The Reflecting Pool a male figure arrives and stands at the edge of a rectangular pool in a lush, woodland setting. As he leaps into the water time seems to freeze and he remains poised in mid air. Except that, as reflected in the surface of the water, time continues even as the image of the poised figure begins to fade. And then, magically reconstituted, the figure emerges from the depths of the water, climbs out of the pool and walks off into the trees.

It’s clearly an account of a baptism, a symbolic rebirth, or perhaps an entry into the natural world. Viola has talked of trying to capture a “concentrated vision which heralds a shift in consciousness”, seeing beyond a dream-like virtual reality to a deeper truth. Such baptismal imagery, developed in myriad ways since but always involving immersion in water, remains central to his visual language.

Ancient of Days is relatively complex in its juxtaposition of several diverse sequences of images, including a burning furniture pyre shown in reverse, a New York city street, a monumental column, volcanic Mount Rainier in Washington State and a ticking clock. It’s been described as a visual fugue and underlying the diversity is a concern with time and cause and effect. The title derives from the name used for God in the Book of Daniel (and in various iconic images including William Blake’s depiction), as a perfect and eternal being. Throughout the sequences, Viola plays around with time, mingling subjective and objective measures of it, running it forwards and backwards. One of his favourite quotes, from the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, seems especially pertinent: “The Universe continues to be in the present tense.”

The final video, Vegetable Memory, also includes a figure plunging into water, but the subject is unmistakably and bleakly death rather than rebirth. For the most part we are in the highly organised, chill world of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market as tuna are processed and sold on an industrial scale in the pre-dawn hours. The cleaned and gutted tuna are laid out in rows and numbered. It’s a factual, documentary record but also rather disturbing.

After spending time in the market, Viola saw it as a vision in which: “There is no afterlife for the soul, only cold, ugly, physical death.” Without “spiritual stuff” we are “doomed to be tormented in eternity by . . . demons. They will poke us, drown us, number us, classify us and systematically hack us to pieces.” These demons, he says, “are the demons of unbelief”. If, on the other hand he optimistically suggests, we can believe in the spiritual liberation of the soul, then “death is birth”.

* The Reflecting Pool: Bill Viola Collected work 1977-1980, Highlanes Gallery, Drogheda, Mon-Sat 10.30am-5.30pm, Fri 9.30am-5.30pm Until January 26