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By Shijung Kim
This spring started off busy for the art-world in Paris: the Musée d’Orsay unveiled its ambitious Van Gogh and Artaud exhibition; the Art Paris Art Fair, albeit not as hyped-up as its autumnal counterpart FIAC, took place during the last weekend of March, spotlighting Chinese art and galleries; that same weekend, Le Salon du Dessin Contemporain showcased contemporary drawings at the Carreau du Temple.
As if all this weren’t enough, the Grand Palais has been attracting throngs of art-enthusiasts by hosting the video artist Bill Viola’s largest solo exhibit to date, so inclusive that many consider it a retrospective. The show exemplifies a fairly new initiative at the Grand Palais – arguably the most prestigious temporary exhibition space in the city – to present more contemporary artists. In addition to the Viola show, another case in point is the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit that premiered on March 26th, also at the Grand Palais. Of course, both Viola and Mapplethorpe aren’t exactly up-and-comers; Viola is one of the most highly regarded video artists of our time, and Mapplethorpe has been a cult figure since his untimely death in 1989. They are also known to evoke a rather traditional sense of beauty – think, for instance, of Mapplethorpe’s male nudes that resemble classical sculptures, as well as Viola’s Rennaissance-inspired videos we will soon examine. It is nonetheless exciting that such a large-scale, institutional attention is being paid to their oeuvres that are barely fifty-years-old or younger.
The Viola exhibit is organized by his wife and collaborator Kira Perov and the curator Jérôme Neutres into three chapters, entitled: “Qui suis-je? [Who am I?],” “Où suis-je? [Where am I?],” and “Où vais-je? [Where am I going?].” These decisively spiritual and existential questions underline the overarching themes in Viola’s art, such as mortality, being, and afterlife. At the exhibition, room after room of videos and installations dares the audience to confront these themes in a way that is by no means peaceful or meditative. Although Viola’s works are highly aestheticized and, in that sense, easy on the eye, they end up producing more discomfort than pleasure; they force the audience into existential inquiries only to respond with almost violent, if moving, dead-ends.
Take, for example, Heaven and Earth (1992). Two monitors attached on wooden columns face each other, one hanging from the ceiling and the other stemming from the floor. Between them is a gap barely large enough to fit a fist. The audience has to bend over uncomfortably to look at the monitors, and even then, it’s hard to get a full view of the screens. When the hunched, struggling audience finally gets the monitors in view, he or she sees displayed on the top monitor a moribund elderly man, and on the bottom, a new-born baby. It appears that the dying man and the baby are respectively at the edges of heaven and earth, of afterlife and source of life. The precarious view of the lit-up screens, in stark contrast to the darkness that envelops them, insists on the smallness of life. We are here far from the hallucinatory visual excesses of Nam June Paik, a pioneer of video art and once Viola’s mentor. Heaven and Earth delivers the simple but powerful message of mortality in an appropriately discomforting fashion.
Constructing installations to control the physical comfort of viewers, as he does with Heaven and Earth, is not Viola’s specialty, or at least not the focus of the Grand Palais show. Most of the time Viola presents his videos conventionally by having them on screens mounted on a wall like framed paintings. Within this traditional set-up, his forte lies in the manipulation of time. Viola often slows down his videos to an extreme. With The Greeting (1995), a video inspired by Pontormo’s Mannerist painting The Visitation (1528-29), he prolongs a shot of forty-five seconds into twelve minutes. Viola also tends to film lengthy and monotonous subject matters. A more recent work, Walking the Edge (2012) features two men walking in the desert and slowly crossing each other’s path toward the middle of the screen. Their walk lasts longer than twelve minutes, while the crossing of the paths takes only a few seconds. The slow progression of the video compels the audience to patiently scrutinize the subtle eeriness of the desert landscape and the ambiguity of the men’s encounter. Viola transforms time into a challenge for his viewers, pushing them to perceive and ponder more assiduously.
Time as we usually conceive of it is invisible, whereas Viola’s primary medium, the video, is undeniably visual. In his works, however, the element of water can visually incarnate time when sculpted into drops, foams, and streams by the technique of slow motion. The most prominent example is Tristan’s Ascension (2005), likely intended to be one of the highlights of the exhibit. The drastic deceleration of time gives striking visibility to the water pouring onto Tristan. It is as though the variegated textures of water embodied the passing grains of time itself.
The significance of water in Viola’s oeuvre extends further. In many interviews, such as this one, the artist tells us that his fascination with water dates from his childhood experience of nearly drowning. Ever since, water has had strong ties with his spirituality, as we can see with the group of videos The Dreamers (2013). The work presents a handful of people asleep under water. Each individual is displayed on his or her own high-definition plasma screen, which beautifully brings out all the details: the color of their clothes, the strands of their submerged hair, the undulations of the water. Visual pleasure aside, the videos also have a somber side. The so-called dreamers, framed in rectangular screens, evoke comparison with dead people lying in coffins. It seems that they are somewhere between death and visual vividness, in the Latin sense of vivere, to live. Such an oneiric, mysterious portrayal of this near-death state is representative of Viola’s mystical spirituality.
Repeated confrontations with these heavy spiritual themes can be exhausting, and sometimes, Viola’s unbounded mysticism borders on New Age spirituality. That’s why a work like The Quintet of the Astonished (2000) is a delight and a great relief. This tableau vivant features five performers conveying various emotions. Their dramatic poses and expressions in slow motion have a comic effect, offering some much-needed distance from all the seriousness of Viola’s other works. With its balanced composition and fine chiaroscuro, the video seems a classical painting brought to life, with a sense of humor. Had there been more works in this vein, the exhibit would have been less taxing and more heterogeneous.
Nevertheless, in our society where images are often hastily dismissed as an easier alternative to texts, the Viola exhibition sheds new light on what it means to see, look, and watch. The moving image is no longer just a distraction, enticement, or senseless sensation; engagement with it requires a tenacious effort. This might be the conscious intent of Viola’s, who, as a West Coast artist, has an express disdain for the neighboring Hollywood industry. Furthermore, the exhibit can be a refreshing change – though not necessarily for the better – from the many contemporary art shows where everything can seem like a game. Viola is straightforward with his topics and references, and the curation is neatly organized into recognizable themes (though such an arrangement at times creates some daunting repetitions). His works initiate a search for spiritual meaning and adhere to traditional norms of beauty. Overall, the Viola retrospective at the Grand Palais provides us with an ambitious and impressive case of conservatism – or at least classicism – in contemporary art.