BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Bill Viola

BY Joe Scanlan in Reviews | 09 SEP 98

If art advanced 25 years ago through a re-assessment of the white cube, then Bill Viola's current retrospective suggests that it's time for a similar assessment of the 'black box'. This typically dark, heavily-curtained, three-channel-video environment was as much the subject of Viola's installation at the Whitney as his quarter-of-a-century's-worth of work. While it can be said that we're all still figuring out how to make such multiple video installations, it's a sad day when the grandfather of the genre is so brutally oblivious to their shortcomings. Bill Viola might know a lot about Time and Space, but he knows very little about timing and spacing.

Throughout his career Viola has been interested in his own cosmic position within the fundamental structures of human life: architecture, time, computers or the mind. Whether dealing with the transience of electronic data or the indelibility of dreams, Viola investigates the tension that occurs when one binary state (stasis, consciousness) is played against another (motion, the unconscious) in such a way that this tension becomes a state of being in itself, a kind of anachronistic 'suspension zone'. In The Nantes Triptych (1992), for example, an image of a man suspended in fluid is framed between those of a young woman giving birth and an elderly woman sleeping. In Reasons For Knocking at an Empty House (1983), a man passes time in a barren, windowed room, framed by the unknown before and after of his continuous present. Deprived of sleep and nearly all sensory stimulation, the protagonist of Reasons... appears adrift in a trackless, intermediate state of consciousness. In many ways Reasons... is Viola's signature work since, lacking an active narrative, its structural elements become the piece's 'characters' by default. Man, space, light, wall, chair and window act out a drama that, however dull by conventional standards, is still a drama - one that is exactly mirrored by the viewer's experience of watching the tape.

This self-conscious flip is where Viola's deep thoughts unravel, though, for despite his interest in transient zones he seems unaware that such pieces can be a source of any emotion other than melancholy. Time and time again, whether viewing The Veiling (1995) or The Passing (1991) or The Nantes Triptych, the same grey similes keep locking into place: submersion equals subconsciousness; blowing sand equals transience; wall equals casement. In a show of this scale, what would by itself merely be an interpretation of such things cannot help but appear as the interpretation, as if no other versions were possible, or could be conceived by Viola. This lack of contingency renders the works clichés. If this is because Viola has strong convictions about the nature of such things and states, then his convictions would hold more water if he occasionally loosened them enough to acknowledge one of the most fundamental laws of human nature: that the opposite of anything can also be true. And even though it could be argued that this narrow symbolic code is another form of confinement through which Viola creates tension, and thereby his work, there's a dosage at which anything ceases to be effective and becomes detrimental.

This is especially true of architecture, which was the ultimate downfall of Viola's show. Designed in collaboration with Peter Sellars, the exhibition layout was a ridiculous maze of darkened corridors and rooms that all too efficiently parcelled out Viola's individual works at the same time that it undermined their cumulative effects. Not one square foot of space was wasted on the viewer, thus it became impossible to give Viola's work a thoughtful reading, let alone attribute to it any openness or depth - you didn't feel as though you were being given fair consideration yourself, nor did any aspect of your experience suggest that openness or thoughtfulness were even necessary. Ultimately, this disregard for the viewer enforced quite a different impression of Viola's oeuvre from the one you might expect: intellectually stunted melodramas buttressed by the self-aggrandising seriousness of technology, with little time for contradiction and less room for contemplation. In other words, with no place for being human. This impatience with humanity made Viola's interest in in-between states, his supposed sensitivity to the transience of being and the frailty of life, seem all the more bogus.