I've been looking at and writing about the videos of Bill Viola for much of my professional life. Really. My first review was in 1978 and, in some way, it launched the career that I've had ever since. I’ve seen individual pieces in LA such as The Passions at the Getty or his video sets for Tristan and Isolde as well as his big 25 year Whitney Museum survey that came to LACMA in 1997. But Bill Viola, the survey now on view at the Grand Palais, is unparalleled in every way. It continues to July 12.
With decades of extraordinary output, it couldn’t have been easy for curators Jerome Neutres and Kira Perov, who is Viola's wife and collaborator, to choose pieces that best reflect what Viola has done, which was to change the appearance, the scale, the very significance of what was originally considered to be a marginal medium in contemporary art. As Viola says, he was born the same year as television and he has been a true believer ever since the getting his hands on a portapak while a student at Syracuse University.
More than any other artist of his generation, Viola moved the medium beyond the initial limitations of a single channel monitor and unwieldy sound. He never acknowledged the larger popular culture so often referenced in video, especially these days, but proceeded as though video were the equivalent of painting in the management of light and color but also sculpture in the expanded field, using monumentality in ways that have been widely emulated. Viola had been influenced by the artists who had come just before him, especially David Tudor and Nam Jun Paik, who had faith in the ability of this new medium to transcend the confines of previous definitions.
The show at the Grand Palais makes this abundantly clear. Unlike many video exhibitions, each piece is contained in a darkened room making the visual impact crystalline and allowing the sound to remain subtle, without bleeding into other galleries. The Grand Palais is a beaux arts behemoth but individual enclosed galleries were built within it to contain each work for maximum impact. The 20 works, ranging from 1977 to 2013, are arrayed over two floors with Viola's sound installation in the circular stairwell that links them. A piece can be 15 feet to 20 feet tall or small as an iPad with equal impact.
Bill Viola, "Tristan's Ascension" (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005
Color High-Definition video projection; four channels of soundwith subwoofer (4.1) 10:16 minutes
Performer: John Hay
Photo: Kira Perov
Viola's early interest in music, playing with David Tudor after college, contributes to his great gift for timing, holding a viewer’s attention during prolonged moments of inactivity, such as the man lying on a slab in the pouring rain for minutes until he is pulled suddenly upward in Tristan's Ascension. No music, just the intensity of the image and a sense of anticipation, heightening our own awareness, our own consciousness.
Devoted for decades to the lessons of Zen masters, Sufi poets and Gnostic Christians, Viola has never wavered from his faith in an art with spiritual roots and transcendent implications. In this, he has found himself isolated from the mainstream of contemporary art, which is decidedly secular these days. But he declares that all art, throughout history, was at some point contemporary and he finds allies in pre-modern artists: Fra Angelico, Mantegna, William Blake, for whom he named his elder son. (His younger son Andrei was named for filmmaker Tarkofsky.) By embracing this forbidden territory in video, as opposed to traditional media like painting or sculptures, Viola can evade the charges of critics who consider spiritual art to be somehow atavistic, even reactionary. Indeed, the desert landscapes, cascades of water, towering walls of flames that have become identifiable features of Viola's art make it almost impossible not to feel the potency of an art meant to operate at the highest level. Even the hallowed St. Paul's Cathedral in London has commissioned a permanent installation, opening in late spring, the first work by a living artist to be admitted to a cathedral in Britain.
Bill Viola, "The Sleep of Reason," 1988
Color video images projected on three walls of a carpeted room; wooden chest with black-and-white video image on small monitor, vase with white artificial roses, table lamp with black shade, digital clock; monitor, room lights, and projections controlled by random timer; amplified stereo sound and one channel of audio from monitor
Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh
Photo: Kira Perov
Viola talks about sculpting in time, like Tarkovksy, but another aspect of time is evident in this exhibition and that is a growing focus on mortality. The artist, 62, is now more eminence gris than enfant terrible. When he presents a pair of vertical plasma screens occupied by the wrinkled, naked figures of an elderly man and woman, I think of Cranach or Rembrandt. His art is about our time but also the larger passing of time that is history, represented in art.
There may be no better place to experience see a show like this than Paris, where you can also visit the collections of the Louvre as I did. But it has been almost 20 years since Viola has had a show here, where he and his family live. Let's hope one of our museums -- MOCA? -- can bring home this brilliant exhibition of Viola's most exquisite pieces.
For more information, go to GrandPalais.fr.