Bill Viola's 'The Raft' invites a university community to explore crisis and recovery

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Bill Viola's 'The Raft' invites a university community to explore crisis and recovery
Bill Viola, The Raft, May 2004. Video/sound installation. Photos: Kira Perov. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio, James Cohan Gallery, New York and American Federation of Arts.

MADISON, WIS.- The effects of climate change on a Midwestern college campus may seem abstract, but in 2018, torrential rains made them suddenly very real for Madison, Wisconsin. For two days, rain poured down on the region, shattering all rainfall records and causing widespread damage including washed out roads and massive flooding of buildings. The rain event prompted city and campus leaders to begin immediate examination of Madison and the surrounding Dane County’s ability to collaboratively manage such events in the future.

The Chazen Museum of Art will invite audiences to consider the human and community impacts of disasters via Bill Viola: The Raft, a video installation that will be on view through Jan. 24, 2021, in the first floor Rowland Gallery. New acquisitions to the Chazen’s permanent collection will be featured in an adjoining room.

Originally created as a commission for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, The Raft is currently touring the United States for the first time. The national tour is organized by the American Federation of Arts and Bill Viola Studio. The Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is the final stop on the two-year American tour.

In recent months, the university campus and the surrounding city of Madison have been the site of continued demonstrations for racial justice. Clashes between police and protesters have occurred, adding strain to a community already suffering from the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down the university campus and the Chazen Museum of Art in March.

“When we originally signed on to be part of this tour, we were interested to explore disaster and the human response through the lens of climate change, which has become very real for our state, our county and our campus,” said Chazen director Amy Gilman. “Now, in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and the national movement around Black Lives Matter, that conversation will become even more poignant and multi-faceted for our students and visitors.”

The Raft depicts, at life-sized scale, a group of ordinary people casually standing together. Suddenly, they are struck by strong blasts of water that rush in, overtake them, and then, just as unexpectedly, recede. In the aftermath of the deluge, the victims huddle together, seek protection and help those who have fallen. The viewer experiences this event in an immersive setting, standing in a darkened room and surrounded by the roaring sounds of the water. Meticulously captured in slow-motion, The Raft arouses a visceral experience of human calamity and shared humanity, provoking a consideration of the range of responses to crisis.

The Raft suggests art historical references, including Théodore Géricault’s iconic Romantic painting, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), an over-life-sized depiction of a group of people struggling to survive a ship wreck on a makeshift raft. Additionally, the ensemble’s arrangement across the video screen and labored movements are reminiscent of classical Greco-Roman friezes.

Bill Viola has said that in this world of unstable and often unseen powers, an attack can come at any time for seemingly no reason. For him, it is important that everyone in The Raft survives, a statement of the resilience of humanity.

“It has been a special privilege to collaborate with Bill Viola Studio to bring this powerful installation to new audiences across the country,” said Pauline Willis, AFA Director and CEO. “The AFA is thrilled to continue its commitment to working closely with living artists.”

Bill Viola (b. 1951, Queens, New York) is a major figure in the development of video and installation art. For more than four decades, Viola has created video work, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances and works for television broadcast. He explores universal human experiences and is inspired by diverse spiritual traditions, including Christian mysticism, Islamic Sufism and Zen Buddhism. Among his numerous accolades, he has received a Getty Research Institute Fellowship, an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Viola has exhibited widely, with solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Grand Palais, Paris, and has represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.

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