When the doors of perception are cleansed, we see things as they really are... infinite
-- William Blake
The old pictures were just a starting point. I was not interested in appropriation or restaging -- I wanted to get inside these pictures. . . to embody them, to inhabit them, to feel them breathe. Ultimately, it became about their spiritual dimensions, not the visual form. As to my concept in general, it was to get to the root form of my emotions and the nature of emotional expression itself. In my art training in the 1970s, this was a place you did not go, a forbidden zone. This is so even today.
-- Bill Viola, in the catalogue for The Passions
"Bill Viola: The Passions," which opened at the J. Paul Getty Museum on Jan. 24 and remains on view through Apr. 27, is an ambitious and courageous exhibition that speaks a name that long been taboo in contemporary art -- the "s" word: spiritual. Organized by the Getty Museum and curated by former Getty director John Walsh, "Bill Viola: The Passions" travels to the National Gallery, London, Oct. 22, 2003-Jan. 4, 2004, and the Munich State Paintings Collection in the spring of 2004.
In an art world more known for its bohemianism, Viola lives what could be called a contemplative life. He has studied the mystical literature of Christianity (his own background) as well as Hindu, Buddhist and Zen texts. He maintains a rigorous spiritual practice, and has studied since 1980 with Zen Master and painter Daien Tanaka. Kira Perov, his wife, collaborator and the mother of their two boys, oversees the operations of his studio and office, produces and photographs the production process of his projects, plans his exhibitions, edits and designs his catalogues and books and manages their business while fiercely guarding Viola's complete concentration on his artistic journey.
In 1997-98, during a period of personal introspection that included the death of his parents and the birth of his first child, when Viola was having trouble locating his artistic compass, he was invited to be a guest scholar at the Getty Research Institute. The theme that year was "Representing the Passions" -- an investigation of the portrayal of strong emotion in art history. In addition to using the Getty's scholarly resources, Viola found himself drawn to the Getty Museum galleries, and spent many hours alone scrutinizing particularly its devotional paintings of medieval and Renaissance art.
The result is his current series, "The Passions," the subject of this exhibition and a transformation in his oeuvre. It is a series that he began in 2000 and continues to make -- so far there are 20 pieces (several of which have already been acquired by major museums) -- whose theme is the expression of archetypal emotions. The current exhibition features 13 key works in the series, including Emergence, which was commissioned by the Getty and is being shown for the first time. A short film commissioned by the museum, Bill Viola and the Making of Emergence by Mark Kidel, is being shown there in connection with the exhibition.
Viola has been credited with making video art accessible to general audiences, and this show will surely expand his popular reputation. The exhibition at the Getty, the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum (whose first acquisition of a video installation was The Quintet of Remembrance from this series) should reach an audience that might ordinarily be indifferent or even hostile to contemporary art. As it happens, the Getty as a rule does not exhibit contemporary art at all. Clearly, this exceptional exhibition fits in well with the museum's Old Master program, and also focuses the audience with a fresh eye on its holdings of earlier art.
The Quintet of the Astonished (2002), which was the first work in "The Passions" series and is one of the strongest, was commissioned by the National Gallery in London, and was inspired by its Hieronymus Bosch painting, Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns). It is the first piece in the show. For this work, as in the others in the series, Viola used actors, a new experience for him. Quintet is exhibited in a darkened room and is displayed on the latest development in video playback: a digital flat-panel screen, which produces an extraordinarily bright and sharp picture, and is very effectively used in this case to simulate the exaggerated color and dramatic mood lighting of the Bosch painting.
The Quintet evokes the composition of the Bosch painting without reproducing or appropriating from it. The actors, seen standing close together and facing the camera, seem to undergo waves of intense, overwhelming emotions. A weeping man is at the center of the image. Expressions of transitory elation, satisfaction, disappointment, and hope are on the faces of the surrounding characters. There is no editing or story, just an uncut 15-minute rear-projection video. Whatever these characters are responding to is off camera and not presented to the viewer. They share the same space yet do not react to each other, each in a private moment.
"The human condition is suffering," Viola has said, and this piece shows the experience of extreme feelings clearly, in exaggerated slow motion, without the use of sound, as an individual internal experience. The effect is to force the viewer to slow down and really look at each change in movement. The experience is as if a painting of Early Renaissance images of men of sorrow has come alive.
Viola's masterly use of the slow-motion, high-definition camera, which was designed to create special effects in commercials, provides a novel way of representing the human face in transition, with every nuance of facial gesture made visible in startling detail. This extremely high-definition format, with colors that have been digitally intensified, is astonishing. What's more, the profound subject matter can put viewers into an almost meditative state, in which time is suspended as the images evolve before them.
The Quintet is particularly successful because the image, though evocative of the Renaissance, remains resolutely modern. Devoid of props, it has an elegant simplicity that makes the contrast with the emotional gestures convincing.
In fact, Viola is most effective when the pieces are most pared down. My favorite work in the show is Catherine's Room, which is based on the painting of St. Catherine of Siena Praying done by Andrea di Bartolo in ca. 1393-94. Mostly because of its modesty and simplicity. Its small scale -- five panels, each about the size of a hardcover book -- is more intimate. It is a private view into the room of a woman performing the daily rituals of life in a single room from morning until night.
Catherine's Room was a collaboration with the actress Weba Garrison, who plays the character of Catherine and is an actor in many of the pieces. She portrays a contemporary version of a saint, a pious woman, living in solitude, going through her day. Each panel represents a different time of day. Each action during the day is created mindfully, with great precision. If there is one piece in the show that truly embodies the spiritual journey, this is the one.
Less effective, however, is the latest work in "The Passions" series, Emergence (2002), the Getty commission. The piece is based on a fresco painting of a Pietà by the 15th-century Italian artist Masolino that represents Christ half-length in the sarcophagus, being supported on either side by his mother and St. John. Emergence shows two women seated by a well from which a pale young man slowly rises to the surface; with increasing effort, they lift him from the water and lay him out on the ground. The piece was overly referential to the source material and the action with overdramatic gestures and period costumes unfortunately disintegrated into kitsch.
Five Angels for the Millennium (2001) fills a large gallery with video projections of a man plunging into water and floating, angel-like. Accompanied by a mysterious and expansive landscape of sound, Five Angels shows Viola's mastery of visual spectacle and ends the exhibition with a crescendo.
The most compelling pieces in Viola's journey to the forbidden artistic zone of the spiritual in art, however, are the simplest and the quietest. Chop wood, carry water.