Art

Bill Viola’s Videos Elevate the Commonplace

Viola’s art takes us to the core of humanity through technology, exploring birth, death, and transcendence, examining the soul through the human body.

Bill Viola, “Ascension” (2000), video/sound installation (photo by Kira Perov)

PHILADELPHIA — When we immerse ourselves in Bill Viola’s videos, it is as if we are dipping into a pool that brings us into other realms of consciousness, and the water is the continual flow of time. I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola, on view at the Barnes Foundation through September 15, starts with four works in one gallery. At first this seemed distracting — I wanted to focus on each individually, to follow their narrative arcs — but, taken as a group, common themes begin to emerge.

The human hand is a vector of emotion in Viola’s work — whether holding water in “Ablutions” (2005) or making contact with a friend in “The Greeting” (1995). In the latter, two women in long, flowing dresses greet one another, first by making eye contact and then by holding each other’s hands. Their body language, in slow motion, suggests the intimate connection in this conversation. We detect the entrance of an interloper by the look in one of the women’s eyes.

Bill Viola, “Catherine’s Room” (2001), color video polyptych on five LCD flat panel displays mounted on wall (photo by Kira Perov)

Many of Viola’s video utilize slow motion, which creates the sense of a portal into the subjects’ inner life. A crowd has just witnessed something tragic in “Observance” (2002). The people come forth in mourning, comfort each other, pay their respects. Their slow movements seem to connect us to their emotions. “I want to look so close at things that their intensity burns through your retina and onto the surface of your mind,” Viola wrote in 1980, as quoted in the exhibition catalogue. “The video camera is well suited to looking closely at things, elevating the commonplace to higher levels of awareness.”

Viola was born at the right time. He pioneered the nascent medium of video art in the 1970s, following the lead of Nam June Paik’s experimental video works. His art takes us to the core of humanity through electronic technology, exploring birth, death, and transcendence, examining the soul through the human body. “Birth is not a beginning, death is not an end,” the artist wrote in his journal (reproduced in Bill Viola by John G. Hanhardt), reflecting on 4th-century Chinese philosophy. Water seeps through his work, whether for purification (“Ablutions,” 2005) rebirth (“Ascension,” 2000), or time-keeping (“He Weeps For You,” 1976).

Bill Viola, “Ablutions” (2005), color video diptych on two flat panel displays mounted vertically on wall (photo by Kira Perov)
Bill Viola, “He Weeps for You” (1976), video/sound installation (photo by Kira Perov)

A shimmering blue light, like an emanation from another world, is present at the start of  “Ascension” (2000). With a jolt, a diver plunges into the water. Bubbles evanesce around him; his vertical body is still as a corpse. Bubbles escape from his mouth, his feet wiggle, and he descends further. As rays of light create beams through the bubbles, the diver sinks beneath our view so all that remains are the bubbles and light, which soon ascend to the heavens. In the end we return to darkness.

Bill Viola, “The Greeting” (1995), video/sound installation (photo by Kira Perov)

My favorite piece in the exhibition is the somewhat obscure “Pneuma” (2009), from a Greek word that has no English equivalent but suggests the underlying essence of life force. Watching it, I felt as if I’d ascended into the afterlife and was looking back at home movies of a life once lived. Projected on three walls, the immersive installation shows a baby boy appearing in the light. As the imagery materialized through static I lost track of whether I was seeing these things or forming my own impressions. One image seemed to be a house I once lived in, its home furnishings providing comfort, and, as in a dream, the house became a body. Water and light are again evocative presences.

The title for I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like is derived from the artist’s 1986 feature-length video of the same name. Screening on Wednesdays at 1 in the afternoon, it is, in Viola’s own words (quoted in the press release), “a personal investigation of the inner states and the connections to the animal consciousness we all carry within.”

Bill Viola, “Pneuma” (1994/2009), video/sound installation (photo by Kira Perov)

When I entered the lower level theater, a buffalo was onscreen, eating and peeing. The buffalo’s eye, seen in a close-up, reflects the horizon. Viola shows several eyes up close, including an opaque fish eye and a berry-like bird eye. I felt I was looking into my animal self through these eyes. The video cuts next to a man sitting at a table, reviewing videos of birds’ eyes, making notes. The clock tells us it’s 3:30am. In a fish bowl we see a reflection of the man at work.

In partnership with the Barnes, the Fabric Workshop and Museum is screening The Veiling through October 6, on nine sheer scrims that blend images from two projection sources, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is screening Ocean Without a Shore through December 31. In the first, produced for the 1995 Venice Biennale, two ghostly figures, a man and a woman, walk slowly toward each other, passing through the scrims, and merging at the center before moving apart. The PAFA installation, produced for the 2007 Venice Biennale, has 3 screens on which 24 figures individually emerge from behind an invisible wall of rushing water, transitioning from black and white into color. In their expressions we see enlightenment, and then disillusionment as they recede back into the water.

Bill Viola, “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like” (1986), videotape, color, stereo sound (photo by Kira Perov)

I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through September 15. The exhibition is curated by John G. Hanhardt.

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