…”Quell the clutter…” – Bill Viola

‘dissolution’, 2005 - video still -artist Bill Viola

‘dissolution’, 2005 – video still -artist Bill Viola

A still from the video artist Bill Viola is but a hint of the the real thing – which come to think of it is actually a lot like photographs – just a hint …  but I have to say in this case a hint is better than nothing.

Speaking of art as experience – My first experience with any of Viola’s work was with a small piece – (and I’m hoping my memory serves me correctly in attributing this memory to Viola) – at the Des Moines Art Center, in Iowa. I may have it all wrong and I can’t seem to find any information to confirm what I remember, but it was a little plexiglass cube with a white orb – head shaped – and just large enough for this shape to be fully immersed in water.  The entire thing was just about chest high – but low enough so you could look down on it.  Upon that cube was a projection of a man holding his breath looking back up at you – the thing is that he’s running out of air.  Peering over the cube you could see him looking back up at you – the murmuring sound gets more urgent – nearly getting to a shout underwater – but you know what happens if  you have ever tried to scream under water.

That simple gesture –  a “video sculpture” lets call it – was thrillingly disturbing – all the elements of suspense hard to leave or look away –  the unforgiving loop presents a never-ending struggle to come up for air.  I remember it still clearly being – to hear the murmurs – tiny bubbles escaping his lips… but in this case just an illusion and clearly set up to reveal itself – pull the extension cord out and the whole thing stops.

Bill Viola, Acension, 2000 video still
Bill Viola, Acension, 2000 video still

My second experience was with Ascension – a 10 minute loop from a dull rumbling blackness to startling plunge in a small dark and dimensionless room – My kids and I watched the sudden but slow fall, rise and fall of man – with all the religious allusions –  yet my experience in watching this brought on an entirely different level of understanding.  I felt their fear as they jumped and clung close to me – grasping on to me for assurance perhaps that they too might not ever fall into the water.  Somehow – my being there assured them.

Below is a clip of another work by Viola and with a little imagination…..  yet I hesitate… because the real experience of seeing a work such as this relies on the total environment to full effect – it points out to me the importance of creating the circumstance for art to exist – and the apparent shortcomings of all that is the web…

Here are some clips interviewing Viola – talking about his source of inspiration… from one of his representing galleries, the James Cohan Gallery

And a quote from an interview…

“Just by my nature I’ve always been drawn to slowing things down, really out of a desire to see things more completely, to quell the clutter and the agitated stream of stuff that’s coming at you constantly, so you can feel yourself living, thinking, breathing.” – Bill Viola – “Bill Viola’s x-ray vision,”      The Art Newspaper, June 22, 2006

Perhaps this is a cue to consider more strongly in still photography.

UPDATE:  It appears as though the work is classified as “sculpture” – according to import tax ruling… article via the Art Newspaper…  seems like a “no-brainer”…


3 thoughts on “…”Quell the clutter…” – Bill Viola

  1. great post, and good timing for me because i’ve been thinking about viola’s work for the past week or so. i will check out the interview and appreciate the links and your thoughts on film/video work, especially as concerns the photographic genre acquiring more substance via viola’s concerns.

    i just saw viola in person for the first time this week, at haunch of venison here in berlin. the looped video work “Transfiguration” is amazing and powerful (two overused words in talking about viola, but very much appropriate), and the longer film pieces (about an hour a piece, showing astride the berlinale film festival) are anxiety provoking and overwhelming (i could only watch one–it was too much afterwards to try and digest anything else; i have to go back this weekend to take in the second).

    been thinking lately about what happens when photographers gravitate towards film/video work, and the degrees of success and also the conceptual ruts that seem common therein (richard billingham’s recent work comes to mind). i don’t know what i’d classify viola’s work as; it’s not just film, or the pat, vague and unsatisfying label of “new media”–but whatever it is it is fully realized and anticipates and starts conversations, dialogs and internal contradictions the likes of which seldom happen to me with conventional photography.

    would love to hear more of your thoughts vis-a-vis this kind of conceptualism intersecting the photographic genre.

    • Stacy – thanks for your comment – I’m slow to respond, but I’ve been thinking about this for awhile. The more I “see” photography on the web – the more I wonder about the importance of creating the “circumstance” for the viewer to receive the image(s)

      I mean simply the differences say between a gallery setting – on the wall with the lights and white space – where scale / manner of framing, etc plays a big role obviously and the way the print is presented (which brings to mind Jeff Wall’s light boxes by the way) – vs what’s between the covers of a good photo book – where intimacy, sequence, rhythm and white space – play off content and form. I suppose it’s no big realization to think the photo book maybe one of the most compelling ways that still photographer’s can create a similar “circumstance” for the viewer. Viola’s work – at least that which leaves the most impression on me – is the work when experienced in a particular setting – the “black box” — the sound, the sense of space all seem to work in conjunction with the images. As you know from seeing Viola’s work – he uses a sort of “white space” too – with sound, darkness, speed of the image to create the mood – to get you to the point where you are not thinking about other things – but become “immersed” – no pun intended.

      I suppose it’s about realizing that there is a certain amount of critical space that’s needed to focus attention on the “here and now” – to suspend belief – sort of trance or transformation of attention – but the other side is that it can’t be “boring” or you risk loosing the viewer to other things and you can not afford to have distractions…

      An example that gets close to what I’m thinking of that starts feel similar in terms of “photo books” is the section in Robert Adam’s “The New West” photo book on “Tracts and Mobile Homes” – it’s the only part of a great little book that I start to feel that immersion with the images – and I think it’s because the images work so good with each other – formally as well as that for me there is a sense of familiarity with the content in them – particularly the Colorado Springs series. I’m just drawn to that kind of still photography – and I think it’s because it doesn’t scream and yell…

  2. Pingback: Ways of Seeing… Stationary images or a flow of informational bits… « Intersecting Images

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