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Leader of the pack

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

American artist, Bill Viola has led video art and installation for more than 40 years. His video The Messenger was shown here at the Dowse Art Museum in 2010. Avenal McKinnon went along to catch up with his work in Beijing.


Faurschou Foundation, Beijing

February 2015

Bill Viola and his collaborator Kira Perov have created their own potent vernacular within the medium of video art. Recognition of Viola’s stature as an artist in this field has included representation at the Venice Biennale in 1995, a survey show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1997, commissions for the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, and the Grand Palais, Paris. His show Transformation at the Faurschou Foundation in Beijing’s 798 Art District, was first on the list of ‘must-see’ exhibitions for a newcomer to this city.

Comprised of The Raft, created for the 2004 Athens Olympics, Martyrs, the first commission of its kind for St Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Inverted Birth, exclusively created for this Beijing exhibition, all three make compelling viewing.

In each work Viola explores the complex questions of existence, of life and the forces around us, using a range of moving image, sound, beautifully nuanced colour values and light. With the sensibility and sure hand of a master, Viola depicts humanity with all its vulnerabilities and strengths, manipulating the fluidity and immediacy of video to create a deeply emotional encounter. He claims the camera as a surrogate, unblinking eye to explore the inner world.

Each piece takes place within a dark void, with no discernible background, using actors as models and protagonists, although there is no narrative in the usual cinematic sense. Viola creates an action which is mesmerizingly slow to produce a total concentration of effect. We see the barely perceptible rhythms of movement, which somehow amplifies the smallest detail as the event intensifies and unfolds.

Inverted Birth – a towering five metre high video and sound installation – is primal in its imagery, tracing a man’s metamorphosis from slippery darkness through pounding, immersive fluids into life and dazzling light.

The Raft (filmed in one and a half minutes but shown slowed down to ten and a half minutes) is a spectacle of terrifying, overlapping tableaux in which an unsuspecting group of people is subjected to the ordeal of a tumultuous deluge of water. It is chilling that the date of this piece (2004) only just predates the Boxing Day tsunami which ravaged South East Asia. In its explosive destruction and suffering it references Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa but in Viola’s hands the theme that emerges is survival and hope

'Earth Martyr' (detail), by Bill Viola, Colour high definition video on flat panel display, 42 3/8 x 24 1/2 x 2 5/8 in, duration 7.10 minutes, executive producer Kira Perov, performer Norman Scott

In Martyrs a seven and a half minute video on four panels – Viola is an alchemist working visually with the four elements of earth, air, water and fire to create a fresh metaphoric language. The viewer is achingly transported into the consuming strength of these forces, experiencing in Viola’s words 'the moment before death.' The martyrs, bound and subjected to suffer within each of these elements, are transformed from an almost etherised, meditative stillness and darkness through defiance and torturous destruction into a dazzling brightness, where colour seems to have evaporated into insubstantial luminescence.

Transformation is video art at its most profound – subtle, universal, sobering, transcending.

First published in ArtZone#58

Avernal McKinnon helmed the New Zealand Portrait Gallery for nine years.

At the time of writing she had recently moved to China.


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