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Viola, who has spent a lifetime exploring birth, aging, spirituality, and death, has helped define and advance the field of video art since the early 1970s.
His head fills the box vertically, cropped at the top where his hairline might be, or once was, and at the bottom, trimming his Van Dyke beard. And it’s unnerving the way the monitor is tethered, via cables, to a speaker on the floor and an LED counter on the wall above, the numerals a pulse-raising red.
Evidence of breathing is usually a reassuring thing. I can detect little rasps and gasps and an overall raggedness, just enough to reverberate inside my chest.
I’ve become less guarded, more physically and emotionally suggestible.
As I stand here watching and listening to Viola breathe, it’s as if I, too, am tethered to that clinical-looking apparatus.
That was the alchemy created by (1992), the second piece presented in the retrospective, a video scuplture formed by two exposed monitors facing each other, each one showing a black-and-white video image: the upper monitor presents the image of an old woman close to death, the lower monitor shows a close-up of a newborn baby.
The two images reflect and blur into each other because of the glass surface of each monitor.Overwhelmed by the light of a huge fire at the entrance, the public was free to move around and look at each single video or to keep still, trying to catch the subtle links between the complexity of images. Also, a second tall projection presented the vision of a woman standing up against a wall of fire and then falling into the water.The final part of the exhibition was dedicated to those works connected to the ideas of rebirth and transcendence. 3: Bill Viola, Fire Woman, 2005; color high-definition video projection; four channels of sound with subwoofer (4.1); screen size: 19 x 10 3/4 ft (5.8 x 3.26 m); room dimensions variable; . After these two mythical and mystical apparitions the public at the Grand Palais was invited to step back into the more concrete and human body in the diptych (2013), where two naked figures of senior citizens are projected on large vertical slabs of black granite, as if they are carved out over their graves; their skin is explored with a small light, trying to isolate diseases or corruptions. 4: Bill Viola, The Dreamers, 2013, video/sound installation; seven channels of color high-definition video on seven plasma displays mounted vertically on wall in darkened room; four-channel stereo sound; room dimensions: 21 3/8 x 21 3/8 x 11 1/2 ft (6.5 x 6.5 x 3.5 m); continuously running. Inspired by the great masters of painting and with a deep knowledge of Zen Buddhism, Christian Mysticism, and Islamic Sufism, Bill Viola’s art, as Chris Townsend writes, is ‘an art of affect rather than distanced appraisal …; an art of duration and absorption rather than an immediate satisfaction and revelation’.9 His work engages the public in a vision that passes through the eyes as much as the heart.As Jérôme Neutres, curator of the exhibition, writes: ‘[t]he artist’s intention is to create conditions that enable the public to itself in the image – a symbol expressed by the recurrant metaphor of a body plunging into water.’2 In fact, as Valentina Valentini says, in Viola’s exhibitions the visitor is not only a mere spectator …, because his works are not just containers for different things.3At the Grand Palais the invitation to a personal and intimate journey was marked at the beginning with a quotation by the soufi Ibn Arabi: ‘[i]f you engage the travel, you will arrive.’ Divided into three ideal chapters connected to three metaphysical questions, the retrospective asked the public to confront some common and fundamental issues about the human condition, questions that have been investigated in Viola’s research: In this perspective the artist’s desire was to trigger an aesthetic experience and a spiritual confrontation.The cycle of life from birth to death, the practice of introspection, the relationship between landscape and mankind, the ideas of transcendence and transfiguration – these are the great themes that Viola offered in this exhibition.As Maria Rosa Sossai writes, the presence of wateris an acknowledgement of the crucial role this element plays in the iconography of the great masters of painting, and of its value as a dynamic natural force. As a sculptor of time (as Viola likes to define himself), his work is based on the manipulation of the speed of the electronic flux.In its flowing, water stands in relation to passing time … In its complex symbolism, water may be seen as a celebration of the ritual of purification through which ordinary gestures turn into something unprecedented.4Like the protagonist of (2000), who suddenly plunges into the water from above as if involved in a choreographed baptism, in this retrospective the spectator was given the chance to drown into a spiritual element. ‘In Viola’s tapes we sense that he is manipulating the instantaneous – stretching it or exaggerating its effect of momentariness.’6 Although there is no stillness in Viola’s work, his basic idea of expanded time is meant to calm the spectator in order to purify his capacity to look outside and inside himself.Although the retrospective began with the grainy and trembling projection of (2013), the 20 works of art presented in between were not in chronological order.There was the metaphorical beginning of Viola’s video art, an entrance with a proactive jump into the water and all the possible temporal manipulations of that bounce (frozen image, slow motion, appearance, disappearance); also, a closure, with the apparent stillness and peace of seven individuals submerged underwater.Divided in five parts directly projected onto the walls as in Italian Renaissance frescoes, it was the largest and most technically-complex work in the show, with five image sequences playing simultaneously that explore some fundamental themes of human existence: the relation between the individual and society, the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.Once inside the room the atmosphere was that of a holy, collective ceremony. The installations feature a projecton onto a tall, vertically-oriented screen, where the soul of the literary hero is awakened after his death and raised to the sky through a spectacular waterfall.