*Texts by Bill Viola
A collection of four musical stories in allegorical form. Images and sound are composed into audio-visual rhythms based on the psychological/emotional dynamics of the individual in interaction with the environment. The aesthetic ideas expressed are closely bound to the unique characteristics of state-of-the-art post-production video systems that existed in 1976.
Junkyard Levitation is a visual play on "mind over matter." Scrap metal technology and video technology are united to temporarily break down the known laws of science, and to prove that psychokinesis is valid in a given frame of reference.
Songs of Innocence
Songs of Innocence is a reference to the poet William Blake. The images and voices of children singing on the lawn of a suburban parochial school reappear as if floating on the wind—engaging the viewer's perceptions, and evoking a visual relationship between memory, the setting of the sun, and death.
The Space Between the Teeth
The structure of The Space Between the Teeth is the structure of the acoustic phenomenon and psychological dynamics of a person screaming at the top of his lungs at the end of a long, dark industrial corridor. Computer editing techniques were used to orchestrate mathematically precise relationships between sound and image, and to create the temporal figure/ground reversal seen in the second half of the tape.
Truth Through Mass Individuation
Truth Through Mass Individuation refers to Carl Jung's writings on the individual and the mass. Three abrupt and violent actions are seized and suspended in time by video disc memory. Tension is regularly held then released as the figure is seen on the verge of frustrated aggression against the environment. In the fourth and final stage, he passively surrenders and is absorbed into the screaming mass of 40,000 people at a night baseball game.
The Reflecting Pool
A man emerges from the forest and stands before a pool of water. He leaps up and time suddenly stops. All movement and change in the otherwise still scene is limited to the reflections and undulations on the surface of the pond. Time becomes extended and punctuated by a series of events seen only as reflections in the water. The work describes the emergence of the individual into the natural world, a baptism into a world of virtual images and indirect perceptions.
Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat)
Chott el-Djerid is the name of a vast, dry salt lake in the Tunisian Sahara Desert, where mirages are most likely to form in the midday sun. Here the intense desert heat manipulates, bends, and distorts the light rays to such an extent that you actually see things that are not there. Trees and sand dunes float off the ground, the edges of mountains and buildings ripple and vibrate, color and form blend into one shimmering dance. The desert mirages are set against images of the bleak winter prairies of Illinois and Saskatchewan, Canada, some of them recorded in a snowstorm. The opposite climactic conditions induce a similar aura of uncertainty, disorientation, and unfamiliarity.
Through special telephoto lenses adapted for video, the camera confronts the final barrier of the limits of the image, the point when the breakdown of normal conditions, or the lack of visual information, causes us to reevaluate our perceptions of reality and realize that we are looking at something out of the ordinary—a transformation of the physical into the psychological. If one believes that hallucinations are the manifestation of some chemical or biological imbalance in the brain, then mirages and desert heat distortions can be considered hallucinations of the landscape. It was like physically being inside someone else’s dream.
Heaven and Earth
In a small alcove, a wood column extends from the floor and ceiling, with a gap in the center formed by two exposed monitors facing each other two inches apart, mounted to upper and lower columns respectively, a black-and-white video image on each monitor.
A column-like structure is enclosed in a small alcove. It is made of wood and extends from floor to ceiling. There is a gap of several inches at eye level in the column, dividing the structure in two. At this gap, positioned facing each other and not touching, are the exposed tubes of two black and white video monitors. The upper monitor shows a close-up image of an old woman on the verge of death, and the lower monitor shows a close-up image of a new baby only days old. The images are silent. Since the surface of each monitor screen is glass, a reflected image of the screen opposite to it can be seen through the surface of each image, as life and death reflect and contain each other.
Slowly Turning Narrative
A large screen (275 x 365 cm) is slowly rotating on a central axis in the center of a large dark room. Two video projectors are facing it from opposite sides of the space. One side of the screen is a mirrored surface, the other side a normal projection screen. One projector shows a constant black-and-white image of a man's face in close up, in harsh light, appearing distracted and at times straining. The other projector shows a series of changing color images (young children moving by on a carousel, a house on fire, people at a carnival at night, kids playing with fireworks, etc.), characterized by continuous motion and swirling light and color. On the black-and-white side, a voice can be heard reciting a rhythmic repetitive chant of a long list of phrases descriptive of states of being and individual actions. On the color-image side, the ambient sounds associated with each image are heard.
The beams from the two projectors distort and spill out images across the shifting screen surface and onto the walls as the angle of the screen alternately widens and narrows during the course of its rotations. The mirrored side sends distorted reflections continually cascading across the surrounding walls—indistinct gossamer forms that travel around the perimeter of the room. In addition, viewers in the space see themselves and the space around them reflected in the mirror as it slowly moves past.
The work is concerned with the enclosing nature of self-image and the external circulation of potentially infinite (and therefore unattainable) states of being, all revolving around the still point of the central self. The room and all persons within it become a continually shifting projection screen, enclosing the image and its reflections, and all locked into the regular cadence of the chanting voice and the rotating screen. The entire space becomes an interior for the revelations of a constantly turning mind absorbed with itself. The confluences and conflicts of image, intent, content, and emotion perpetually circulate as the screen slowly turns in the space.
Inspired by Pontormo’s Mannerist painting Visitation (c. 1528–9), The Greeting is a video image sequence projected onto a screen mounted to the wall of a dark room. Two women are seen engaged in conversation. Industrial buildings are visible behind them, aligned in a strange perspective within a barren urban background. As the two women are talking, they are interrupted by a third woman who enters and approaches them. As they prepare to greet her, it becomes apparent that one of the women knows her quite well, the other less so or perhaps not at all. A slight wind comes up and the light subtly shifts as the new woman arrives to greet the ones she knows, ignoring the other. As the two embrace, she leans and whispers something to her friend, further isolating the other woman. With an underlying awkwardness, introductions are then made and pleasantries exchanged among the three.
Presented as a single take from a fixed camera position and projected in a vertical aspect ratio more common to painting, the actions of the figures are seen in extreme slow motion. An original event of forty-five seconds now unfolds as an elaborate choreography over the course of ten minutes. Subtle aspects of the scene become apparent. The unconscious body language and nuances of fleeting glances and gestures become heightened and remain suspended in the viewer’s conscious awareness. Minor shifts in light and wind conditions become central events. At times the background becomes foreground, and other figures are seen in the darker spaces behind the central figures, engaged in unknown activities. The geometry of the walls and buildings appears to violate the laws of optical perspective, and this, together with ambiguities in lighting, all lend a subjective character to the overall scene. In the end, none of the figure’s actions or intentions are explained or become apparent. The precise meaning of the event remains in circulation as an ambiguous, speculative gesture.
Thin parallel layers of translucent cloth hang loosely across the center of a dark room. Two projectors at opposite ends of the space face each other and project images into the layers of material. The images show a man and a woman as they approach and move away from the camera, viewed in various nocturnal landscapes. They each appear on separate opposing video channels, and are seen gradually moving from dark areas of shadow into areas of bright light. The cloth material diffuses the light and the images dissipate in intensity and focus as they penetrate further into the scrim layers, eventually intersecting each other as gossamer presences on the central veil. Recorded independently, the images of the man and the woman never coexist in the same video frame. It is only the light from their images that intermingles in the fabric of the hanging veils. The cone of light emerging from each projector is articulated in space by the layers of material, revealing its presence as a three-dimensional form that moves through and fills the empty space of the room with its translucent mass.
Catherine’s Room is a private view into the room of a solitary woman who goes about a series of daily rituals from morning until night. The woman’s actions are simple and purposeful, and appear simultaneously in parallel across five flat panel screens arranged in a horizontal row. Each panel represents a different time of day—morning, afternoon, sunset, evening and night. In the morning she is seen preparing for the new day by doing yoga exercises. In the afternoon she mends clothes as sunlight pours in through the window. At sunset, she struggles to overcome a block with her intellectual work as a writer. In the evening she enters a reflective state by lighting rows of candles to illuminate her darkened room. Finally, at night she prepares for bed: she puts out the lights, removes her clothes, and slowly drifts off to sleep, alone in the still dark room.
A small window in the wall reveals a view of the outside world where the branches of a tree are visible. In each panel the tree is seen in successive stages of its annual cycle, from spring blossoms to bare branches. The world outside the window represents another layer of time, transforming the scene from a record of one day into the larger view of a life bound to the cycles of nature.
Four small flat panel screens mounted on a shelf display moving images of four pairs of hands. Shot with a black-and-white low-light camera, the hands of a young boy, a middle-aged woman and man, and an elderly woman are seen as they slowly and deliberately form a series of predetermined gestures. The gestures are both familiar and strange, influenced by a variety of sources from Buddhist mudras to seventeenth-century English chirologia tables. The symbolic patterns of the motions of three generations of hands—son, mother and father, grandmother—describe a timeline that encompasses both the parallel actions of the individuals in the present moment and the larger movements of the stages of human life.
Surrender is a diptych composed of two flat-panel screens mounted to the wall in a vertical configuration, one over the other. Images of a man and a woman appear separately on each panel, and their positions alternate from upper to lower screen with each repetition of the playback cycle. The figures are viewed from the waist up and the figure on the lower screen is shown upside down, suggesting a mirror reflection of the upper image.
The man and woman perform three synchronized prostrations of increasing emotional intensity and duration. At first, this appears to bring them physically closer to each other as if to embrace or kiss. However, their actions reveal the presence of a water surface below at the edge of the screen, and they penetrate this surface face-first. As they emerge, their sorrow and anguish appear to increase along with the undulating disturbances on the surface of the water that they have caused. When the images of their bodies themselves begin to break up into rippling, wavering forms, it becomes apparent that we have been looking at their reflections on the surface of water all along, not their actual bodies. This ‘image of an image’ becomes more violent and distorted each time they enter the water, until finally their extreme emotional and physical intensity peaks and their visual forms disintegrate into abstract patterns of pure light and color.
Going Forth By Day
Going Forth By Day is a five-part projected digital-image cycle that explores themes of human existence: individuality, society, death, rebirth. The work is experienced architecturally, with all five image sequences playing simultaneously in one large gallery. To enter the space, visitors must literally step into the light of the first image. Once inside, they stand at the center of an image-sound world with projections on every wall. The story told by each panel is embedded within the larger narrative cycle of the room. Viewers are free to move around the space to watch each image panel individually or to stand back and experience the piece as a whole.
The five image sequences are each approximately thirty minutes in length and play in synchronization on a continuous loop. Sound from each panel mixes freely in the space, creating an overall acoustic ambience. The images are projected directly onto the walls—without screens or framed supports—as in Italian Renaissance frescoes, where the paint was applied directly into the plaster surface of the walls. The title of the work derives from a literal translation of the title of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, “The Book of Going Forth by Day”—a guide for the soul once it is freed from the darkness of the body to finally “go forth by the light of day.”
Fire Birth (1)
A human form emerges from a dim submerged world. The body swims in the fluid of an unconscious state between death and rebirth. Orange rays of light penetrate the surface of the water, coming from the previous world, which ended in fire. Now, illuminated by the light of prior destruction, the human essence searches for a way through this new underwater realm. It seeks the material form and substance necessary for its rebirth.
The Path (2)
It is the time of the summer solstice high in the mountains. The early morning light reveals a steady stream of people moving along a path through the forest. They come from all walks of life, each traveling at their own pace in their own unique way. There is no beginning or end to the procession of individuals—they have been walking long before we see them here, and they will be walking long after they leave our view. The constant flow of people suggests no apparent order or sequence. As travelers on the road, they move in an intermediate space between two worlds. A small marker in the forest grants them safe passage through this vulnerable state. There is no going back. They move constantly forward, driven toward an unknown destination.
The Deluge (3)
A stone building, newly restored, stands in the clear light of the autumnal equinox. People move along the street immersed in the flow of everyday events. Small incidents play out, affecting individual lives. Families are leaving their homes, people on the street are carrying personal possessions, and all actions become colored by an increasing tension in the community. Moments of compassion and kindness circulate within a mounting concern for individual survival.
When a warning is sounded for all to hear, a final moment of panic ensues on the street as individuals rush to save themselves. The last ones, in denial of the inevitable, have waited too long in the security of their own homes. Now they must run for their lives as the deluge strikes with full force at the very heart of their private world. They rush out of the building when it is suddenly flooded from within by a raging torrent of water. Individual lives and personal possessions are arbitrarily chosen to be lost in the process. Finally the violence and fury subsides as the surging water slowly recedes, leaving the building unharmed and the street washed clean. The empty sidewalk glistens in the midday sun.
The Voyage (4)
It is late afternoon at the time of the winter solstice. A small house stands on a hill overlooking the inland sea. Inside, an old man lies ill on a bed, attended by his son and daughter-in-law. Outside, another man sits by the door keeping vigil. Down by the shore, a boat is slowly being loaded with the personal possessions from the dying man’s home. An old woman waits patiently nearby.
After some time, the son and daughter-in-law must depart, leaving the old man alone with his dreams and fading breath. His house, container of lives and memories, is closed and locked. Soon after, the old man reappears on the shore and is greeted by his wife, who has been waiting for his arrival. The two board the boat, which departs, carrying them and their belongings to the distant Isles of the Blessed.
First Light (5)
It is dawn on the morning of the vernal equinox. A team of rescue workers has been laboring all night to save people caught in a massive flash flood in the desert. Exhausted and physically drained, they slowly pack up their equipment as the dawn light gradually builds and the emotional impact of the night’s events deepens. A woman stands on the shore, looking off into the flooded valley where her friends and neighbors once lived. She silently waits, filled with fear and fading hope for the fate of a loved one, her son, who will never return.
Fire Woman is an image seen in the mind’s eye of a dying man. The darkened silhouette of a female figure stands before a wall of flame. After several minutes, she moves forward, opens her arms, and falls into her own reflection. When the flames of passion and fever finally engulf the inner eye, and the realization that desire’s body will never again be met blinds the seer, the reflecting surface is shattered and collapses into its essential form—undulating wave patterns of pure light. Fire Woman is a projection installation with images displayed on a large vertically oriented screen. Four channels of surround sound fill the space.
Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall)
Tristan’s Ascension describes the ascent of the soul in the space after death as it is awakened and drawn up in a backwards flowing waterfall. The body of a man is seen lying on a stone slab in an empty concrete room. Small drips of water become visible as they leave the ground and fall upward into space. What starts as a light rain soon becomes a roaring deluge, and the cascading water jostles the man’s limp body and soon brings him to life. His arms move of their own accord and his torso arches upward amidst the churning water.
Finally, his entire body rises off the slab and is drawn up with the rushing water, disappearing above. The torrent of water gradually subsides and the drips decrease until only the empty slab remains, glistening on the wet ground. The image sequence is projected onto a tall, vertically oriented screen mounted on the wall. A specially configured 4.1 surround sound system arrays the sound in the vertical dimension of the space.
The images for Night Vigil are derived from a production of Richard Wagner’s nineteenth-century opera Tristan und Isolde, a collaboration with director Peter Sellars, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bill Viola and executive producer Kira Perov (video, 2004-2005). The original story of Tristan and Isolde is a mythic tale of a love so intense and profound that it cannot be contained in the material bodies of the lovers. In order to fulfill their desires, the two must ultimately transcend life itself to arrive at a realm beyond all polarities of light and darkness, male and female, life and death, time and eternity.
The installation Night Vigil is a rear-projected video diptych on two adjacent screens. In the video sequence a woman and a man, separated by darkness in the middle of the night, are drawn to each other and to the source of light that illuminates their longing. They undertake individual journeys to reach their goal: his, an outward journey of action–the long approach through the dark night into the light of a blazing fire, and hers, an inward journey of contemplation—the methodical lighting of a bank of candles until the darkness of her room is filled with light. Although solitary and separate, the destinations of their individual journeys are the same—the merging of their individual selves in a world beyond death.
The Innocents is part of the Transfigurations series, a group of works that reflect on the passage of time and the process by which a person’s inner being is transformed. The medieval mystic Ibn al’ Arabi described life as an endless journey when he said: The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next. This profound vision of the eternal nature of human life is eloquently expressed in these works that use water as a metaphor for transformation.
This diptych presents two young people, male and female, at a time of their coming of age. They emerge independently from the shadows and walk towards us, their features becoming increasingly clear as they approach. We realize that their journeys will be solitary, with no interaction between them. Each passes through a wall of water that becomes more turbulent as they cross. Moving into the light, soaking wet and stunned, as if enduring a rite of passage or a birth, it slowly dawns on them that they have arrived. Gradually, however, they are drawn back from where they came, slowly, inexorably, back through the light and the water, into the darkness to continue their cycle of birth and death.
Three Women is part of the “Transfigurations” series, a group of works that reflect on the passage of time and the process by which a person’s inner being is transformed. The medieval mystic Ibn al’ Arabi described life as an endless journey when he said, The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next. Three Women expresses this profound vision of the eternal nature of human life.
In the dim, ghostly gray of a darkened space, a mother and her two daughters slowly approach an invisible boundary. They pass through a wall of water at the threshold between life and death, and move into the light, transforming into living beings of flesh and blood. Soon, the mother recognizes that it is time for her to return, and eventually her children slowly follow, each tempted to have one more look at the world of light before disappearing into the shimmering, gray mists of time.
Two people, a man and a woman, are seen on their separate journeys, approaching slowly from a great distance, traversing a vast desert landscape, battered by hot winds and immersed in hallucinatory heat waves. Gradually, as they move forward, their path takes them closer to each other until they cross the threshold of mirages, and, passing from the realm of illusion into reality they finally meet and continue their life journey as one.
Two women are taking separate journeys at opposite ends of their lives. At the intersection of their meeting, during a brief encounter, life bonds are strengthened and the mystery containing the knowledge is quietly passed on from the elder to the younger.
Walking on the Edge
Walking on the Edge represents the inevitable separation of father and son as they take separate paths in their life’s journey.
Two men arrive in the desert under a turbulent sky. They appear at the far extremes of the frame and walk toward us on a trajectory that takes them closer to each other, until they are walking side by side. Eventually they cross paths and begin to separate. The gap between them widens until they leave the outer edges of the frame.
Chapel of Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures
Chapel of Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures is a complex arrangement of nine individual plasma screens positioned in three horizontal rows with nine channels of sound. Each panel depicts a person or couple perpetually repeating an activity in a weary but steady rhythm, pausing at the end of each cycle, before the inevitable repetition of that action. The video is looped so there appears to be no end to the cycles. Every action is repeated in ritualistic fashion, gradually and purposefully, rendering each futile endeavor all the more poignant.
Man Shoveling Gravel, Two Women Gifting, Man Pulling Cart;
Couple Slapping, Pouring Water, Woman Moving Belongings;
Man at Door, Two Men in Boat, Man Digging Hole.
Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity
“Whatever is not stone is light.” Octavio Paz
Two seven-foot high slabs of black granite lean side by side against the wall in a dark room. Two naked human figures, a man and a woman, appear to emerge from the stone and walk toward us. They arrive looking directly into our eyes with clarity and awareness. Slowly, each turns on a small light and begins a familiar daily ritual, carefully searching his or her body for evidence of disease or corruption. This is done methodically and meticulously, for they are searching for death. When they are finished, they each turn off their light, thankful for life. Standing very still, they gradually dissolve back into the stone from where they came.
The Dreamers is a room-sized installation containing seven large flat panel screens that depict seven individuals submerged underwater at the bottom of a streambed. Their eyes are closed and they appear to be at peace. Water ripples across their bodies, subtly animating their movements. The sound of running water permeates the space as dreams filter through the room.
Projected onto a five-meter high screen anchored to the floor, Inverted Birth depicts five stages of awakening through a series of violent transformations.
A man stands in the darkness, drenched in black fluid, the sound of drips punctuating the hollow sound of an empty space. Gradually the fluid begins to rise and as the movement escalates, the flow upward becomes a roaring deluge. The dark despair of black turns to fear as the liquid changes to red but the man remains strong. With the flow of white liquid comes relief and nurturing, followed by the purification of cleansing water. Finally, a soft mist brings acceptance, awakening, and birth. The fluids represent the essence of human life: earth, blood, milk, water, and air, and the life cycle from birth to death, here inverted into a transformation from darkness to light.
*Texts by Bill Viola