Butterfly Visits Dentist: Bill Viola Paris show
My notes on the Bill Viola show at the Grand Palais in Paris.
going to the dentist
I sometimes dread going to a Bill Viola show because I fear that he will have done a piece that one of my video works resembles, and thereby ensure that people will say I’m influenced by him, or, worse, that I copied him. Like Viola, I shoot water, fire and slow motion video.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not comparing myself to the greatest video artist of the day, I realize that he is an eagle and I am a butterfly. I just don’t want to be seen as a butterfly imitating an eagle.
So I joke that going to a Bill Viola show is like going to the dentist, you know you have to go, but you’re concerned that it’s going to hurt. I put off seeing his current show in Paris as long as I could. I was wrong to do so. The dentist visit was actually pretty interesting, and not as threatening as I imagined.
Going Forth By Day
The main thing that struck me is that Viola continues to move from looping installation to lengthy one-take movies. This is especially evident with the 5-screen Going Forth By Day. With movies, the length of the video becomes important. With looping installations, it’s not as important, once the length is longer than the attention span of the viewer. With a 35-minute duration, Viola’s big movie piece is a little taxing. When you watch a movie, you want to see the ending. Here, because the action is so slow, slower than Antonioni, waiting for the ending breeds more impatience than contemplation.
My favorite piece in this quintet is The Voyage, which shows an old woman dying surrounded by her son and his wife. This video has a very direct emotional connection, and its form evokes a Renaissance painting, with its house cross-section and sectioned composition, and the barge crossing the bay is a simple, poetic image of the passage from life to the other shore.
The other 4 pieces don’t feel as powerful. The best thing about First Light, the drowning accident scene, is the change of the background light from night to dawn. The cool idea of the fire piece is to give an orange color to aquatic footage. The 48:9 aspect ratio of the walkers is a great format, but there isn’t much else to it. The people walking in and out of The Deluge feel staged, and the water pouring from the house left me indifferent.
Like many of the works in the show, this piece evokes death as an aquatic passage. The same theme is apparent in: Tristan’s Ascension, Three Women, Ascension and The Dreamers.
Indeed the leitmotif of the man raised from water is nearly identical in Tristan’s Ascension, Ascension, and First Light. The last piece evokes Christ’s resurrection, with sleeping rescue workers instead of soldiers.
My favorite piece in the show is Three Women, 2008.
Two women and a girl slowly emerge from darkness through a water curtain into light and then return. I love the mixture of the underexposed grainy monochrome ghostly figures behind the curtain and the bright colored ones in front. Beautiful and moving.
I also like that this can work as a loop, not just a narrative with an ending.
I came back from the dentist reassured that, even though I also like to shoot water, fire and slow motion, and despite the fact that I also love pre-Renaissance painting, I am not copying the biggest video artist of the day.
It’s not about form, it’s about content. At heart, like the man sitting cross-legged with his back to the dying woman’s door in The voyage, Viola is more of a Buddhist than anything else. I am a Catholic. While Buddhists seek inner peace, Catholics are informed by the Passion.
The things that inspired me the most about the Viola show had to do with the staging of the video pieces. I will steal the hanging screen idea, but I’m not sure he’s the first one to have used that. And the show also made me think again about using projectors instead of screens.