Stepping through this doorway took us into a labyrinthine series of white corridors, until we finally found ourselves in a small meeting room where Bill Viola and his wife Kira Perov would soon join us.
In contrast to these narrow, white office spaces, two floors above, the cavernous gallery spaces are dark, filled with video works that play out on both a monumental and intimate scale. You enter the exhibition to be immediately confronted by The Crossing (1996), projected onto a large wall-like screen in the middle of the room. On one side, a man walks towards the camera in extreme slow motion, eventually coming to a stop. Water starts to fall onto his head, drop by drop, trickling into a steady flow and then a torrent, into which he disappears. On the other side, the same figure walks towards the same spot and is gradually engulfed in flames, again disappearing within them.
Later on in the exhibition are The Passions, a series of works that Viola began in 2000 when inspired by older art, in particular the devotional painting of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. These silent slow motion videos show men and women expressing emotions, and displayed on flat screens, they look like animated versions of the paintings that inspired them; some are even folding diptychs stood up on plinths, strongly reminiscent of the folding religious panel paintings produced in 15th and 16th century Europe, particularly in the Netherlands.
Looking at these works, it struck me that works such as Dieric Bouts’
The Annunciation (1450-55), Andrea Mantegna’s The Adoration of the Magi (ca.1500) and Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ Mocked (1490-1500) — works that particularly inspired Viola — were traditionally made for churches, and it is only later that they found themselves into the museums where Viola saw them. While Viola sees this body of work as a continuation of this tradition, by contrast, he makes it specifically for museum spaces and not for churches, suggesting that perhaps he sees gallery and museum spaces as having a religious potential.
“I think that any time you are making something that touches the inner self of the human being, anything that emerges out of ourselves from a genuine, unguarded place is ultimately a sacred act, no matter whether you follow a religion or not. All of the things that surround us came out of the inspiration of transforming the material world into our inner vision. So in some way, museums are functioning as religious, spiritual places.”
Nevertheless, he is quick to draw a distinction between religion and spirituality, that he regards religion as a political institution that detracts from what is essential.
“It is the individual that is the core of the religious experience: what happens within you, as opposed to the general congregation or the general population. So in today’s world, where our lives are filled with so many messages floating all around us and affecting us, art museums are a special place where you can be quiet and still and focus on another person’s dreams”.
The installation of this retrospective is certainly the best use of the Mori Art Museum’s space that I have seen so far and achieves exactly what Viola desires. The dim lighting and the large scale of many of the projections allow Viola’s imagery to take up your entire field of vision and with almost all of his work having been shot in extreme slow motion, the whole space takes on a dreamlike quality; moving from one darkened room to another feels almost as though you are swimming through water at night.
This feeling is at its most intense once you reach the room where The Five Angels for the Millennium (2001) are exhibited. The five projections show the figure of a clothed man plunging into water in an explosion of sound and light that disrupts the otherwise tranquil setting.
These works were developed during the period of intense grief he went though after the death of his father in 1999. The imagery was originally conceived as one of suicide, but after two years of not looking at the footage, he experimented with playing it backwards and realized that by doing so he could create metaphorical images of birth.
The boundary between life and death is a strong theme that runs through some of his work, notably Heaven and Earth (1992). A white column rises from the floor to the ceiling, divided in the middle by two television screens that face each other. The lower screen shows a close-up image of a new-born baby, only days old while the upper screen shows a close-up image of an old woman, hospitalized and in the last week of her life. The glass screens of the television monitors allow both of the images to be reflected in the other: birth and death infuse each other. The monitors are exposed cathode ray tubes, attached to the columns only by four thin metal bars. This exposure of the fragile technology comes across as a strong metaphor for the fragility of human body and was a deliberate conceptual link that Viola aimed to present.
“When things are exposed, they’re fragile and vulnerable. You look at those cathode ray tubes and you know they are made of glass and contain a vacuum, like a light bulb. They seem incomplete and very, very fragile in the way the two human lives that are being represented are incomplete and fragile”.
He goes on to talk about ancient Greek mythology, and that people who died were led to the underworld across the River Styx, which was known also as ‘The River of Forgetfulness’.
“When individuals die, they die with the knowledge of the group, so the fundamental problem that human beings have to solve is how to get across the River of Forgetfulness and keep the knowledge? The only way we can do that is through stories, teaching, and through physical things, leaving marks. If we didn’t have those things, there would be no progress. So this media I use is actually part of that system, it’s part of a way to get across the river”.
In terms of one human being communicating with another and the attempt to pass on knowledge, he believes his work and the technology it incorporates are no different from a 40,000 year-old deer antler with two notches carved into it, one of the earliest traces of human life. This faint connection with our ancient past is a total contrast with the hyper-interconnected nature of the present Internet age and yet Viola sees this new technology as being intrinsically human.
“I think the Internet today is possibly one of the most accurate representations of the social nature of human beings. Human society is a fundamental network of relations that goes back to each individual’s childhood, families, circle of friends, cultural background and so on, extending out all around the world. For the first time in human life we have an artificial system that can embody and represent that invisible world. What digital technology is giving us is the ability to represent invisible things as well as visible things.
“The essence of digital is a code, a conceptual, metaphysical element that has no physical existence and yet it’s the most powerful tool we have today to understand our world, both in terms of the ability to model things with a computer and the ability to communicate through digital web systems like the internet. This code is fast becoming the whole way that human beings work: even we ourselves are being revisualized. We no understand the body in terms of force, reaction and hydraulics: today’s model of a human being is a code, DNA. It’s not coincidental that we have remapped the human being as a coded system and that this is the most accurate model of a human being we have. It’s not coincidental that this is occurring in the same age that is giving us the computer, which also functions on a code. It’s part of a much larger movement to somewhere that maybe we don’t quite understand yet but it’s very powerful”.
Viola’s ability to communicate his ideas through his artwork has certainly progressed in step with the latest developments in technology. From 1980 to 1981, he and his wife lived in Japan where, as well as immersing himself in all aspects of traditional arts and philosophy, he spent six months working at Sony’s Atsugi Research Center, giving him access to the latest advances in video technology at the time. To talk of the combination of tradition and modernity in contemporary Japan is to give a clichéd description of this country, and yet it is inherently true. Viola’s experience of this duality came not so much from riding the shinkansen into Kyoto, but from fleeting encounters with people practicing ancient rituals today: witnessing a monk chanting 1000 year old mantras struck him as the human rendition of a tape recorder playing back sounds recorded in the early 20th century.
Without this spiritual core, there is nothing to ‘activate’ the technology in his artwork beyond mere machinery. And yet, without the ongoing development in technology, his ability to express these feelings would remain static. The development of the flat screens that display his Passions series made it possible for that body of video work to have both a conceptual and physical connection to the tradition of painting that inspired it. Wondering what it might be like to look back on Viola’s work in 2006 in ten years from now, I asked him if he has any ideas he would like to develop at this point but the technology is not yet developed enough to realize his ambitions.
“I’ve always wanted to see my mind thinking while I’m thinking. I recently met Hanna and Antonio Damasio, two cognitive scientists who are developing a new system for imaging the brain while it’s in the process of thinking, so you can see how the thought patterns move”.
Viola attempted this mapping of human consciousness in his earlier work The Stopping Mind (1991), an installation of four projections facing each other in a square, showing different, but interrelated imagery. The four projections stop and start without warning; when still they are accompanied by a soundtrack of a rapidly whispering voice, and when moving the room fills with a crescendo of white noise. The installation explores the discrepancy between the human perception of the world and its representation either as still or moving documentation: it works as a visual metaphor for the stop-and-start movement of human thought processes.
It is too early to speculate exactly how Viola might use this new technology, but it certainly represents a new step in the integration of his artistic ideas and thought processes with the technology that renders them visible. It will certainly be the first time he creates work using a technology that is not designed for documenting the external world, but the internal one. However, while he is clearly excited about the potential for artistic expression in this new technology, he stresses that technology is nothing by itself, that it is merely an extension of the human who uses it, with both positive and negative implications.
“What matters more is that the artist understands the inner technology of their thought process and makes sure that it’s as pure and honest and direct as it can be. Artists will pick up a tool and use it in a completely different way from what the makers ever intended. That kind of creative liberation is really important, especially in this age.
“The danger of technology, as described by the 20th century American psychologist Abraham Maslow, is that ‘if the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail’. When you pick up cameras and recorders, you have to be very careful to realize that someone else’s intention and assumption of how this instrument will be used is built into that instrument.
“For example, cameras are being used as weapons. 9/11 was not about flying a plane into the World Trade Center, 9/11 was about putting on a display in front of one of the most media-concentrated places on earth — Manhattan — where every camera in the world would be turned on that event. The weapon used in 9/11 was the image and not the plane. So that way of thinking is something really important that artists need to be aware of: what the impact and effect of their images is going to be”.
While the ongoing development of technology may change the way artists are able to document the world, both external or internal, it is almost always the case that how artists perceive the world with their own eyes precedes the creation of their work, whether they choose to use a paintbrush, a chisel or a video camera. How they portray the world in their work can often take on vastly symbolic associations.
The Raft (2004) shows a group of men and women of various races and socio-economic backgrounds suddenly being knocked to the ground by a huge, high-pressure jet of water. Filmed at 300 frames a second, every detail of their reaction in the face of this overwhelming onslaught it revealed to the viewer. The very act of standing has become an almost impossible task and some people cling to each other while others attempt to stand firm against the force of the water. The water subsides as quickly as it arrived and the group, bewildered and emotional, slowly recovers.
“The Raft” is an image of destruction and survival. People get knocked over by water and it looks like they have been destroyed but they come up again. I feel very strongly that no matter what happens to human beings, no matter how much suffering, tragedy or disaster we face, we will come up again somehow. Even in this very difficult, dangerous time in human history that we are living right now, I feel very positive about that”.