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Experiencing Bill Viola's Buried Secrets

Maria Antonella Pelizzari

Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Inatallation

I guess in the end what's important for me is that experiences then get shared. The sharing is essential: it imparts life to the work. Bill Viola, "Putting the Whole Back Together", 1992.1

Grace: I am visiting Bill Viola's video installation at the Venice Biennale, and this word comes to mind, slowly and unobtrusively like the "buried secrets" contained in the five rooms of the American pavilion.

What is grace? How can Bill Viola's electronic art trigger grace?

Suspended in the enigmas of Viola's interiors, I am experiencing the transformation of Venice's cultural landscape into the artist's space of light and darkness. Grace is guiding me through the "suspense" of these rooms. As in earlier installations Viola does not distinguish between his creative interiors and the physicality of the outer landscape. As he writes, "it is the tension, the transition, the exchange, and the resonance between these two modalities that energize and define our reality. The key agent in this exchange of energies is the image, and this 'space between' is precisely the place in which my work operates."2 As an observer, I am a reflection of Viola's "space between." The "resonance" is part of the artist's work and of the observer's attention, bringing them to a secret communication, which is close to grace.

A few weeks ago, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I saw my image reflected in Viola's mirror installation of Slowly Turning Narrative (1992): continuous flickering images were projected onto one side of the large mirror, and I was embraced by the artist's beating visual and verbal chant. The piece set an emotional ground for my reception of Viola's Buried Secrets in Italy. Grace is an invisible meeting of two distant perceptions. The sense of duration, Viola's most distinctive signature, allows my process of gradual absorption of the Biennale's installation. As he explains, "duration is an important element in my work -cultivating the ability to see 'through' objects."1 Unlike the experience of Slowly Turning Narrative, I am not absorbed by the artist's endless chant: I am invited to move slowly through the five spaces, while creating my own narrative. Grace lies somewhere inside this process.2

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I experience grace as a momentary connection with the invisible side of myself: I cross the threshold of the first room and I become immersed in a dark "Hall of Whispers." On my right and left, above eye-level, I encounter ten white faces, alternatively men and women, human size, their eyes closed and gently vibrating as in a state of REM sleep, their mouths gagged like prisoners kidnapped by unknown forces, beyond their human control. These electronic busts projected from the ceiling demand my attention as they articulate, in deep voices, a mysterious speech from unreachable sources. Their buried sounds remind me of a single-channelled piece by Gary Hill entitled Mediations (1979-1986): a voice speaks out of a speaker, while a hand tries to connect with the physicality of that voice, entering the picture of the speaker and ultimately covering the voice with white sand. Hill's piece is a metaphor for communication as the attempt to connect with and yet suffocate the voice of the "other." Viola's "Hall of Whispers" suggests a similar content through a more emotional impact. In both videos I am confronted with voices from the underground: I want to connect with them and yet I become suffocated by them. I listen to the anxious chorus of these prisoners in the darkness. I strain my senses to grasp their messages and become part of their babelic conversation. How can I possibly untie the projection of their imprisonment? Or maybe I am the prisoner, and they are warning me.

Viola's first tunnel is like Plato's cave. I think of The Reflecting Pool (1977-79) and I experience here, once again, the ephemeral mirror image of my human physicality. Jean Clair's theme for the 1995 Venice Biennale, "Identity and Otherness," seems to fit this concealed "Hall." Bill Viola's silent Sleepers (1992) are now rebelling: I am helpless, surrounded by their calls. A sense of repulsion takes over me. I could leave and breath the open air of Venetian light, go look at the colorful display of Titian's and Bellini's glimmering canvases. Venice is an architectural lace lying on the water: why stay here, surrounded by ghost-figures? I feel like screaming loudly inside this space, showing them "the space between [my] teeth." In this hall Viola is shutting off the impulsive scream of his earlier work, such as The Space Between the Teeth (1976) and Anthem (1983). Yet, as with those pieces, the projected images and their voices evoke a primal fear of separation of body and soul. As a viewer, I become directly engaged in the artist's quest. I walk through the hall, I cross the second threshold, and I enter an "Interval."

I experience grace as a gentle caress moving slowly over my body. Projected on my right, a man is standing inside a tiled shower room. The overall frame is bare and neutral. The man is naked, column-like, parallel to a white shroud hanging from a bar. Slowly, he soaks a piece of white cloth in a water pail, avoiding the abrupt jet from the shower. Piero della Francesca's fresco of the Baptism of Christ comes to mind: Viola has chosen a classical frame to represent a daily act of purification. The Italian Renaissance composition sets the stage for a ritual on video. The ritual contained in Viola's projection recalls also the first scene of Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (1986), where Alexander is planting a pine-tree in the ground, while instructing his boy "Little Man" to water the dry tree: "If every single day, at exactly the same stroke of the clock, one were to perform the same single act, like a ritual, unchanging, systematic, everyday at the same time, the world would be changed."

The man is cleansing each part of his body, performing a meticulous exercise. Early in 1975 Viola had created an installation, Il Vapore, where a videotape of his solitary performance was presented. Similar in nature to the Biennale's "Interval," Viola acts out a one-hour long ritual of purification kneeling before an iron pot and pouring water from a bucket with his mouth. Since that early piece, water has always signified for him spiritual purification as a constituent element of our physical being. The Passing (1991) explained this connection: we were born from a liquid environment, and we are seeking to return to that element, where our bodily weight will be dissolved. Water also promises the revelation of another realm. When he was ten Viola survived the traumatic experience of falling into a lake. "The thing [he remembers] is the imagery of this incredibly beautiful, serene blue-green world that [he] had no idea existed below the surface."1 A similar experience is visualized in The Reflecting Pool, where a dressed man jumps into the water and resurfaces as a naked figure.

In Viola's work water functions as the quintessential experiential element and joins the physical with the spiritual side of the body. He feels that "contemporary art, as well as philosophy, has neglected the fundamental energies of our beings" and that there are "mysteries in the truest sense of the word, not meant to be solved, but rather experienced and inhabited."2 Through this physical purification, Bill Viola interprets today John Dewey's philosophy, when he wrote in 1934: "In every experience, there is an element of undergoing, of suffering in its large sense. Otherwise there would be no taking in of what preceded. For 'taking in' any vital experience is something more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful."3

The peaceful bathing scene is mirrored by a projection of quick, violent, abrupt shots. On the left wall run images like an earthquake of natural elements and muddled images of bodies. With the aid of a computer switcher, peace is confronted with chaos at an ever-increasing rhythm. Everything is extremely fast and alarming, while calm reigns on the opposite side. These warnings of an imminent catastrophe recall the rapid strobe shots and the fragmented edits made by Viola in I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986). The ritual pattern of one scene is confronted with another one of fear and danger; such duality is omnipresent in Viola's work, and reminds me, once again, of Tarkovsky's cinema. In The Sacrifice the actors are immersed in a similar situation: sounds and images broadcasted on TV announce the nuclear war, and an overwhelming power takes over the quiet ritual inside the house.

I am between two walls, almost like water and fire. Viola acknowledges this dichotomy, while aiming at the reunification of mind-body, ritual-chaos in the human experience. Indirectly, Viola confronts Andres Serrano: the two authors visit respectively Eastern and Western philosophies for their responses to the polarity of mind-body. While Serrano isolates the pathos of Christianity in relationship to the body, Viola suggests a possible encounter of Eastern philosophy with Western notions of the body. He says: "Western science has decided it is desirable to isolate the senses in order to study them, but much of my work has been aimed at putting it all back together."1 The two opposite walls of this room suggest, almost as a scientific study, the separation of two entities. "Togetherness" derives merely from the observer's awareness, from "a passive, receptive position, as in the way we perceive sound, rather than an aggressive, fragmented one, as in the way our eye works through the narrowing function of focused attention."2

Sound creates the overall perception of the third room. I experience grace as the "Presence" of whispering voices falling from the small dome of the pavilion. The video-image has been transformed into a sound-image; Viola does not differentiate them. He writes: "By images I mean the information that comes through sight, hearing, and all the sensory modalities."3 Since the early 1970s, when he made a series of recordings in pre-Renaissance religious architectures in Florence, Viola came to realize that "sound seemed to carry so much a part of the feeling of the ineffable . . . [like] a vital link between the unseen and the seen, between an abstract, inner phenomenon and the outer material world."4 I inhabit this circular space and I become part of the piece, as I am invited to sit on a bench and listen. Only when I step directly into the sound beam can I distinguish the words. This room is about connection. It almost feels as if the dark "Hall of Whispers" is beginning to unfold: the mute gags have turned into the revelation of someone's secrets. The connection to this room brings me back to childhood, when my mother used to whisper night prayers after fairy-tales. I am lying in bed, covered by blankets, and angels' voices are talking to me. Was it the silent chorus of surgeons and nurses after my operation, or was it the promise of a lover? I remember grace, and memory is a blessing.

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I experience grace as the meeting of physical particles moving toward transparent veils. Two figures walk toward each other, penetrating the blurred depth of veils. This "Veiling" recreates a natural environment through the simple device of fishnet layers and two projectors at the end of opposite sides. As in The Reflecting Pool and in Hatsu Yume/First Dream (1981), people evanesce in a Taoesque physical balance. Their meeting is fortuitous, while their bodily weight becomes part of the natural energy. More than in the previous rooms, I experience tension through these veils. I do not feel repulsion any more, but I am not as much a part of this environment as I would like to be. I am still an observer, watching this ethereal meeting. The sound of whispering voices had begun to embrace me, but the filter of these images is keeping me distant. Like the mysterious presences filtered in Hatsu Yume's bamboo-canes, the secrets lie hidden inside the woods. Only one room is left to reveal them.

Two women bound in a silent conversation are projected onto a frame, almost like a painting. Their hand gestures and their expressions create a purely visual communication. One woman is young and blonde, wearing a blue dress. The other one is older, her gray hair pinned up in a relaxed bun. She wears a yellow blouse, a bright red scarf, and a long gown decorated with a geometric pattern. The two women are surrounded by ancient walls, seemingly an Italian medieval environment. Two tiny male figures meet in the distance and exchange something in front of the walls' entrance. All figures are moving slowly inside the frame. Viola shot with 35mm high-speed film, and stretched this footage to twelve times its original length, without any loss of resolution. This technical device allowed him to preserve brilliant colors, while bringing motion to Brunelleschi's still perspective. The result is like viewing a painting in slow-motion.

The room's title is "Greeting." I learn later that Viola was specifically inspired by a work of the Italian late-Renaissance painter Jacopo Carrucci da Pontormo, and that this piece can be viewed as the artist's homage to Italian art.1 When he was 23, Bill Viola spent one year in Florence, Italy. He said about the experience that "it was most important being there to feel art history come alive off the pages of books, to soak into [his] skin." There, he said, he "had [his] first unconscious experiences of art as related to the body."2 In response to that early lesson, Viola prepared a treatise on human encountering, transforming the "temporal [perspectival] image" of a painting into a "temporary [moving] image,"3 shot on film.

"What is movement in a moving image?" is a persistent question in Viola's work. In his essay "Video Black. The Mortality of the Image," he analyzed Brunelleschi's discovery of perspective as the optical revolution which allowed, for the first time, the viewer to stand in the painter's shoes. Under perspectival rules, "the picture plane and the retina became the same surface."1 Yet, this picture became "a frozen moment", fixed forever into history. How, then, could one revitalize history? How could memory truly become part of human experience? "The Greeting" challenges these questions.

Viola's moving tableau is about the expectation of life. Two women are waiting for a third presence. A woman is traveling from nowhere to enter this painting. Her right arm crosses the frame, while the older woman is looking ecstatically towards her invisible energy, soon-to-become-image inside the frame. Expectation is like a blind act of faith, which can make the invisible visible. With this slow visual transition from an absence to a presence, Viola aims at connecting Western and Eastern mysticism. The connection, or "togetherness," occurs inside the observer's passive attention. I sit in contemplation of the slowly unfolding scene. The third woman is young: she wears a bright red dress, which reveals her pregnancy. Inevitably, the scene awakens my Christian memories. The third woman is Mary, who is carrying Jesus in her lap. She moves towards the older friend, Elisabeth, and gives her a gentle hug. Through this silent greeting, Elisabeth's faith becomes visible, and the baby leaps in her womb for joy. Grace surfaces from their embrace. I am part of the process, almost unaware of my interaction with the moving image flowing onto the electronic canvas. Through the women's "greeting" I am witnessing the possible unification of two bodies and souls.

I cross the room. I am in Venice. I go visit the church of Saint Zaccaria, where Giovanni Bellini's Sacred Conversation glimmers in its historical context. I perceive, for the first time, the painter's masterful depiction of silence. I look at the figures' "secrets", and they begin to speak through their still gestures. They are like gagged ghost-figures, still columns resting in the contemporary cultural chaos, whispering and penetrating walls of understanding, greeting through their body language.

Bill Viola's installation creates an important cultural bridge: the secrets remain buried inside historical ground, until someone like him reshapes the classical myths and the Christian gospels into universal messages that cross the boundaries of cultures and religions. Those who are "passive" and receptive can experience grace as the artist's gift to contemporary communication.

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Printed in MFJ No. 29 (Fall 1996) Video Installation

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Last revised on 10-16-96 by Dayoan Daumont

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