Bill Viola, "The Greeting", 1995

Bill Viola, “The Greeting”, 1995

On Time

Copy of image and spiritual misappropriation – Bill Viola and video

In the late 20th century, this period became a major dimension for contemporary art, replacing the spatial volume, including length, width and depth. Art theorist Frederic Jameson wrote in “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”: “it is impossible to use the concept of volume when a new space emerges…which no longer means that the distance produced perspectives. He believed that video was dominant in this new space. Video art is the only appropriate form to access the space and time.”

American artist Bill Viola is called the “Father of Media Art” by many people, what his videos are most concerned with is the sustainability of time. “The Greeting” was an extremely slow projection for the show in Venice 1995. It was interpreted again as the scenes of the oil painting “The Greeting” (1528), by Italian mannerist Jacabo Pontormo, describing that Mary was lucid when an angel told her that she was to give birth to Christ, while Elizabeth was to give birth to John the Baptist. She was eager to tell her sisters the message. The master of the Renaissance strove to capture the key moment in all its lucidity that Mary and Elisabeth are on the verge of a spiritual immersion with God. But Viola’s works was in the context of an industrialized city, in the video, two women were in an animated conversation, interrupted by the advent of the third woman. The entire film lasts ten minutes, composed by a series of images which move too slow to be detectable. A close emotion slowly flowed onto the quiet picture, a lot is left to the imagination of the audience. Rather than simple interpretation of the religious stories once again, its significance was for the observation of religious and painting history again. By slowing the speed of the screening, the audience was forced to think and meditate, and to establish a real contact with the media. “I have never felt as a painter until now,” as stated in Viola’s documentary of this work. “It seems that I am moving colors, but in the film… adding a thing – time, which is close to people but always distant to painting.”

A ghostly figure in Bill Viola's video installation "Five Angels for the Millennium".

A ghostly figure in Bill Viola’s video installation “Five Angels for the Millennium”.

In 2001, Viola’s video works “Five Angels for the Millennium” was initially on display, five VCR respectively screened the same film that of a dressed man slowly sinking into the water, in different sequences. The duration of each video was different every time, the images as calm as water were interrupted by the sound of the body suddenly submerging in the water. The screenings of some films were reversed, so that it seemed that the man was flying from the water like an angel, instead of sinking into it. Sometimes Viola replayed his films, and his angel floated out of the water like a fish.

The pictures of the films were constantly converted, so it was impossible to predict which side of the wall would appear when the man suddenly jumped into the water, with a rolling motion, whether it came from the wall behind the audience, in front of them, or in a corner. At the moment, the persistence of time became a kind of suspense.

Through the video installation “Five Angels for the Millennium”, Viola needed the spatial effect of time. He explained: “Time is ultimately an invisible world that surrounds us. In fact, it is our life. We live in a time like fish living in the water, while we cannot taste it, see it, touch it, and smell it. Were you interested in seizing time, you’ll notice that it is elapsing, which makes you feel lost. But were you interested in the conversion, growth and change – it’s no problem to drive it towards the wind and waves. You will be immersed in the flow of time, all wet!”

Bill Viola, "Silent Mountain", 2001

Bill Viola, “Silent Mountain”, 2001

As a section of the “Passion” series, “Silent Mountain” (2001), also attracted the attention of the audience with slow motion, more precisely, it led them to melt into the videos. Although it was a silent work, also entitled “Silent Mountain”, Viola said that it was probably the most intense cry in his works, a cry from the heart. The man in the images was distorted, curled, and struggling … from pain to ecstasy. His strong body language was reminiscent of an ancient Greek sculpture “Laocoon”, Baroque master Bernini’s “Saint Theresa’s Ecstasy”, and even Symbolist artist Munch’s “The Scream”. Compared with the performances in such a dramatic way, other factors of the video seem as dull as water: the actor wearing an ordinary T-shirt, at a silent stage and with a dark background, and surprisingly slow action … but at the same time, there emerges an internal vitality. Religious paintings of the Renaissance were the inspiration of Viola, he said: “The old picture is just a starting point, rather than a misappropriation and reproduction, I’m interested in entering these images … to express them, occupy them, and feel their breath.” It’s visible that Viola had not only made reproductions of the classic images, but also a spiritual misappropriation. Theorist Mark Hansen called this misappropriation the “creative incarnation” of traditional art. In the “New Philosophy of New Media”, Hansen pointed out: Passion series displayed a truly creative combination of digital technology, reconstruction of concept, and leading a new era of image production, thus reorganization of the relationship between humans and technology, in addition, extending the fields where humans grasped the material world, with the use of the potential of information.”

The advantage of new media art such as “Passion”, was the combination with the technologies of the future, in the eyes of Hansen, while Viola emphasized more on the relations between his works and art history. Viola had been very interested in mysticism for a long time, in the study of a variety of religions and traditions of the world, he found a striking consistency between the different races and cultures in the history of humans. Therefore, he believed that the study of history was very important for humans to inherit a spiritual heritage, just like the Persian theologian Rumi pointed out in 1273: “The formation of the new organs of perception is the result of the intrinsic desire, therefore, when one increase his/her inner desire, he/she may increase the perception.” In Viola’s view, the use of new technology was but a means, rather than a goal. New technology does not change people’s ideas, but while one finds the spiritual power in the tradition, the new technology gets the real vitality of new technology.

Globalization and Totality

“The Passion” assumed a relationship with an ancient art – Renaissance, but didn’t show any special event or scene. It went beyond the boundaries of history and culture, closely connected with today’s economy, history, and social status. Similar to “The Passion” directed by Mel Gibson in 2003 (later renamed as “The Passion of the Christ”), it was neither a specific historical event, nor a religious issue, but the violent conflicts between countries, nations and religions on the politic, cultural, economic and traditional globalizations, embodied in the “oil war” in recent years, as well as various issues of the fundamentalist’s recovery such as Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, and Hinduism.

About the relationship between globalization and religion, the literary theorist Bewes noted that: The concept of globalization represents the totality, performing in the simplistic form, rational and controlled, and eternally political, like the concept of God in the past.” This passage reveals: In today, the concept of globalization replaces the position of God. Both Viola and Gibson’s works “The Passion” reveals: God is the Totality of the era of globalization, which is reflected in religious, economy or ideology. With the collapse of modernity, swarms of debris break the rational logic, to eliminate the depth of memory, resulting in people’s universal paralysis of thinking and lack of emotion, when holistic and spectacular totality moisten and repair the postmodern fragmentation.

In the early works, Viola had produced the effect of infiltration by the changing of the proportion of the image. However, when he found that the LCD screen replaced the kinescope, he had a completely different experience of image, “I feel that I am going backwards to the image, and lost in its aura … which revealed that it was neither expanding nor reducing the proportion of the image that declared the effect of infiltration, connected to some other characteristics of the image.

“The Passion” series displayed on a flat-screen LCD, like a painting hung on the wall of the museum. With the extreme slow motion of the images, the margin was ambiguous, and the images disappeared … the sense of infiltration of the screen, together with spiritual infiltration gave the audience a sense of totality. It demonstrated an unprecedented emotional power and spiritual depth, bringing the audience into a meditative space of illusion. The screen was not only the background, but also a space for storage and display of memories. The artist explained what the contemporary passion was, with the use of the themes in the painting of history and religious images and the infiltration of modern screens. That was the desire of the “totality” once again: a desire to integrate the shattered memories and to liberate them from the commercial oriented images.

To be continued…

Translated by Chen Peihua/CAFA ART INFO

The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of CAFA ART INFO.

This was published in the Literature & Art Studies, Issue 6 in 2009.


Related posts: