“I was born at the same time as video” – a viewer reads a memo in a dark labyrinth of the first retrospective of American video artist Bill Viola. Recently opened at the Grand Palais until 21 July, it shows off twenty works and is the first video art exhibition at the National Galleries. The retrospective revolves around three open philosophical questions: Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? The experience of going to the exhibition visit is conceived as a journey, however, the artworks, as precious artifacts, are not called to give the answers, but to pose the questions.
For Bill Viola and his wife and collaborator, Kira Perov, Orient was a source of inspiration, especially in the determination of time in an artwork. Video is a medium that lets time stop, a simple, but a crucial invention of 20th and 21st centuries. Even though the creations by Bill Viola contain multitude of references to the history of art, he admits to have never worked starting from a theoretical base: it’s more about sensuality of vision. It all exists around you. The artist himself observes his choice protractedly and afterwards invites a viewer to submerge themselves into the act of watching.
The first exhibit is The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), a video where the main protagonist is an artist himself. This choice is not accidental: in his interview with the exhibition organizer, Jérôme Neutres, and Kira Perov the artist remembers one of the first experiences of visual fascination and special time perception that happened to him when he was a child and watched the sun’s rays under the water of a lake.
Bill Viola joins the eternal archetypical contradictions: dark and light, day and night, fire and water, masculine and feminine, life and death. One of the works explicitly implementing the conflict of opposites as well as their inner lack of distinguishability is Heaven and Earth (1992). Two facing monitors transmit black and white silent images almost reflecting in each other. The upper is dedicated to an old woman on her deathbed and the lower is dedicated to the face of newborn, watching a world for the first moments in its life.
The personality of the artist himself, and even his family, as already mentioned, frequently becomes a transmitting element in his work. Thus, in four screens of the polyptych, Four Hands (2001), we see the gestures influenced by diverse traditions including the Buddhist mudra and English theories of 17th century about hand language. The gestures depict a chronology of individuals and a group, and are performed by three generations: a son, father and mother, and a grandmother.
Passing through on a journey through the exhibition, the viewer pauses on an immense five video simultaneous projection Going Forth by Day (2002). The title is derived from a literal translation of the title of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a guide for the soul in a dangerous other world, and explores the themes of human existence: individuality, society, birth, death and rebirth.
After plunging into the depths of Ascension (2002), the viewers complete the journey with Dreamers (2013), one of the recent creations, which is made up of seven tablets, each showing a person under water as an allusion both to art history, religion and artist’s development.
Bill Viola, until 21 July, Grand Palais, 3, avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris. www.grandpalais.fr
1. Going Forth By Day (2002) by Bill Viola, Installation Video. 36 minutes. Performers : Weba Garretson, John Hay. Photo: Kira Perov