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The Barnes Foundation opens its first exhibition devoted to video art
Bill Viola, Ascension, video projection, 2000. Photo by Kira Perov. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- In its first exhibition devoted to video art, the Barnes Foundation is presenting a survey of works by pioneering American video artist Bill Viola (b. 1951). Organized for the Barnes by distinguished guest curator John G. Hanhardt, I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola is the first large-scale exhibition of Viola’s work to be presented in Philadelphia. This exhibition brings together a selection of the artist’s major pieces dating from 1976 to 2009, including the rarely seen large-scale installations He Weeps for You (1976), Pneuma (1994/2009), and Ascension (2000), as well as smaller screen-based works. On view in the Barnes’s Roberts Gallery from June 30 through September 15, 2019, the exhibition shows how Viola has redefined the moving image with a compelling and distinctive oeuvre that challenges the senses.

During the 1970s, Bill Viola was a vanguard leader experimenting with the new medium of video. He paved the way for subsequent generations of media artists and throughout his career has created genre-defying, mind-expanding work that invites meditations on human consciousness, spirituality, and the cycle of life and death.

The exhibition draws its title from Viola’s 1986 work I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, an ambitious 89-minute, single-channel video that envisions an epic quest for transcendence and self-knowledge. A touchstone for the exhibition, this work—which Viola describes as a “personal investigation of the inner states and connections to animal consciousness we all carry within”—is being presented in the Comcast NBCUniversal Auditorium at the Barnes. Seven additional works, including three full-room installations, are on view in the Roberts Gallery.

“For our first exhibition dedicated to video art, we are thrilled to present the work of artistic visionary Bill Viola, whose immersive installations explore the nature of human consciousness,” says Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President. “Uniquely suited for a presentation at the Barnes, this exhibition reveals Viola’s myriad global influences, which are echoed in the diverse holdings of the Barnes collection, where European modernist and Italian Renaissance paintings are displayed alongside African and Asian art, and Native American jewelry and textiles.”

“It’s exciting to bring the first large-scale Bill Viola exhibition to Philadelphia,” says guest curator John G. Hanhardt. “The collection at the Barnes presents a wonderful context in which to celebrate Viola’s remarkable achievements and his contribution to world art.”

Exhibition highlights include:

• Ablutions (2005): A video diptych with a woman and a man on separate screens slowly cleansing their hands in a ritual of purification.

• Ascension (2000): A signature piece and one of the most dramatic in Viola’s oeuvre, this work shows the transformation of the body as it plunges into water and is transfigured by light. The movement is a compelling expression of rejuvenation in the space between life and death.

• Catherine’s Room (2001): An exquisitely detailed five-channel video, its form is based on the predella in St. Catherine of Siena Praying by the 15th-century painter Andrea di Bartolo Cini. It is a private view into the room of a solitary woman who performs daily rituals from morning until night, seen simultaneously in a series of five screens arranged in a horizontal row.

• The Greeting (1995): A celebrated work, which premiered at the Venice Biennale and was inspired by Pontormo’s Mannerist painting Visitation (1528–1529). It is the unfolding of a meeting between three women that depicts in extreme slow motion, every nuance and detail of their emotions and movements.

• He Weeps for You (1976): Rarely seen and the earliest work on view, this large-scale landmark closed-circuit video installation explores our perception of time, focusing on a single drop of water that contains a reflection of the room and people in it. It repeatedly and slowly forms and then falls, striking an amplified drum. The magnified drop is seen as a large projection in the room.

• I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986): This single-channel video, with an 89-minute running time, is structured in five parts: Il Corpo Scuro (The Dark Body), The Language of the Birds, The Night of Sense, Stunned by the Drum, and The Living Flame. It envisions a metaphysical journey of rational and intuitive thought, from the natural world to spiritual rituals. Viola’s poetic investigation of subject and object, observing and being observed, and his search for knowledge of the self is encapsulated in an indelible visual metaphor: an image of the artist reflected in the pupil of an owl’s eye.

• Observance (2002): Displayed on a narrow vertical screen, this work portrays an evocative and emotionally charged scene, where people file forward in shared anguish and grief to observe the object of their sorrow.

• Pneuma (1994/2009): In this dreamlike installation, room-size projections create an immersive environment that invites contemplation. “Images alternately emerge and submerge into a field of shimmering visual noise, the ground of all images, and hover at the threshold of recognition and ambiguity,” Viola describes.

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