Bill Viola (New York, 1951) is internationally recognized as one of todays leading artists. He has been instrumental in establishing video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. Despite the importance given to his work, it has been shown only occasionally in the Netherlands. The most recent exhibition of his work was held more than ten years ago, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and works of his in public collections are often not on view. An exception to this is De Pont Museum
s nearly permanent display of the two works from its collection. These constitute the point of departure for a presentation of thirteen pieces by him which can, in view of their themes, be called 'intimate work'. Each work is being shown in one of the museum's characteristic 'wool-storage rooms', so that the intimate aspects of these video films can be given optimal consideration.
At the centenary celebration of the Venice Biennial in 1995, Bill Viola surprised the public with his compelling exhibition Buried Secrets. Five powerful video installations were shown in the American pavilion. One entered via Hall of Whispers, a dark space with video projections on either side portraits of anonymous political activists, gagged. Their protests and moans could be heard distinctly through the projection screens. The visitor, having anticipated a brief respite from the activity outside, was confronted with a harsh political reality. Viola had conjured forth images of executions and other atrocities and unlike the makers of most day-to-day television images managed to involve the viewer, personally and physically, in the wrongdoing.
Another work in Buried Secrets was The Greeting. For ten minutes the video shows an encounter which actually lasted only forty-five seconds. Due to the extremely slow motion, the ordinary character of the event suddenly becomes unusual and fraught with meaning. Two women in an alleyway are talking with each other. The conversation is suddenly interrupted when the older of the two appears to be pleasantly surprised; a young woman in a bright orange dress approaches, and they embrace. The woman in the center, who is almost kept out of this for a moment, is the key figure around whom Viola builds the image of the communication. The slow motion causes every gesture and every emotion to be revealed in minute detail: from the gaping mouth of the older woman, the radiant eyes of the younger one, to the hesitation and the excluded position of the onlooking woman.
Inspiration for The Greeting was taken from a sixteenth-century painting by Jacopo da Pontormo. Its theme, the visitation, i.e. the moment at which Mary tells Elizabeth that she is expecting a child, was painted in a very poignant manner as though the suffering of Christ could already be read in the glances being exchanged by the two women. In the oeuvre of Pontormo, this work has special significance. The artist used every conceivable tactic the stylistic play of exaggerations and distortions that distinguish mannerism in order to make the knowing gaze as intense as possible.
This exchange of gestures and emotions, by which words become superfluous, must have struck Viola on contemplating the painting by Pontormo. Viola has often shown an interest in penetrating the depths of the human soul and in putting mind and body to the test. A clear example of this is Nantes Triptych (1992), which is in the collection of the Tate Gallery in London. This is a virtually religious piece, whose large projected video images together depict the cycle of life. In the arms of her spouse, a young woman bears a child, the contractions and groans becoming ever more vehement in the process. Even more engrossing is the scene, also recorded in real time, of an older woman dying. One can hear her breathing heavily; one can see the total exhaustion and feel the pain and the fear of inevitable death. Between these two dramatic images, there appears a video projection of a young woman swirling about under water in a kind of dream state.
Another indication of this interest can be seen with Déserts, a film from 1994 with visual improvisations to a powerful orchestral work by Edgard Varèse. Here, too, Viola explores the extremes of physical and mental experience, this time by using the desolate expanses of the desert and the sea as metaphors for loneliness. He does this on the basis of a statement by Varèse in which nature is compared to the elusive parts of the mind that reflect the world of mystery and existential loneliness.
Together with artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gary Hill and the somewhat younger Tony Oursler, Bill Viola has brought the medium of video to a state of maturity. Particularly in recent years Viola has proven himself to be a master of this medium, which is about as old as he is himself.
Video works such as Hall of Whispers, and Nantes Triptych show how far the video has developed beyond the stage of registration. Nowadays the image is manipulated with the aid of a computer. It can be repeated, decelerated, accelerated and blurred to ones liking. Video art is no longer a separate domain but overlaps and interacts with other realms: the computer, film, photography. What makes The Greeting so special is, furthermore, its clear relationship to a very classical art form, namely painting. The work conveys a statement about the relationship between the static and the moving image and in doing so makes a statement about one of the most important developments in the twentieth century. Whereas Pontormo was forced to capture the meeting in a single moment, Bill Viola was able, due to the camera, to spread the experience over a period of ten minutes. The result is a monumental masterpiece of this age.
The exhibiItion includes the following works: The Reflecting Pool (1977-1979), Heaven and Earth (1992), Nine Attempts to Achieve Immortality (1996), Memoria (2000), Catherines Room (2001), Four Hands (2001), Observance (2002), Study for Emergence (2002), The Last Angel (2002), Old Oak, Study (2005), The Lovers (2005), Small Saints (2008) and Acceptance (2008).