A Review of Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait at the National Portrait Gallery by Brendan L. Smith
In a darkened room, I am surrounded by seven submerged bodies, fully clothed with eyes twisted shut at the bottom of a rocky riverbed, frozen in time except for the occasional bubble of exhaled air that rises to the rippling surface.
Amidst these life-size video projections and the amplified sound of flowing water, I begin to feel as if I’m underwater as well, floating silently with them, imbued with a sense of both anticipation and timelessness. When will these unknown people surface for air or are they lost in a state of suspended animation? Are they trapped or enraptured in a world of dreams from which they will never awaken, some unseen limbo that may be full of joy or horrors? Their blank expressions reveal nothing about their inner states.
Titled The Dreamers, the video installation is part of Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait, the National Portrait Gallery’s first exhibition dedicated solely to media art. When he almost drowned as a child, Viola felt a mystical sense of peace, and water frequently surfaces in his work as an elemental force capable of life-giving sustenance or destruction. The exhibition’s video installations explore themes of life and death, grief and redemption, and spirituality and devotion.
Viola, now 65 years old and living in Long Beach, Calif., has been a video art pioneer since the early 1970s when he first saw a clunky portable video camera as an art student at Syracuse University. He represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2007, and his work has been shown worldwide, including a four-screen installation called The Martyrs at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
The National Portrait Gallery created some small black-box galleries for this exhibition that also will be used in future media art shows, which is a welcome addition for a museum not known for contemporary art.
In The Raft, a crowd of strangers stands tightly together as if at a bus stop, ignoring each other while lost in their own worlds, before inescapable blasts of water roughly knock them down, leaving them cowering on the ground with arms upraised for protection.
Then the strangers of different ages and ethnicities stop ignoring each other. Shot in slow-motion video, they embrace and help each other up, sharing a moment of compassion and community after surviving a faceless foe, perhaps the brutal force of nature or riot police armed with a fire hose.
Water also is featured in Three Women, where a mother and her two daughters appear in black and white behind a cascade of water. As they slowly move through the waterfall, they are suddenly transformed into color as their dripping bodies move forward, silently gazing outward before turning and passing back through the water into the distance where they fade into static.
“They look like statues that are moving!” my 4-year-old son Ewan proclaimed while we sat on a bench watching the 9-minute slow-motion video. And their slow, deliberate movements do impart a sculptural quality to these nameless women, who seem lost in a disquieting limbo, passing from our world imbued with color into a shadowy netherworld.
In the next gallery, the theme of mortality continues in Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity where slow-motion videos of a nude elderly man and woman are projected onto black slabs of granite, a material often used for gravestones.
In our society obsessed with youth and beauty, my first instinct was to turn away from their nude bodies marred by sagging breasts and wrinkled skin. But their shared humanity, and ours, shines through while they use small flashlights like a doctor’s probe, slowly scanning their bodies as if searching for some hidden path to eternity. Then their figures become hazy, fading to static like a blank television channel, gone from the here and now into the hereafter.
In the 1980s, Viola traveled to Japan with his wife for an artist fellowship and studied Zen Buddhism, which influenced his work and his views about spirituality. He also lived in Florence in the 1970s, and some of his work has an affinity for early Renaissance religious paintings, characterized by their bold and confrontational expressions of emotion, the anguish of Christ, the zealous devotion of his followers, and chaotic battles between angels and dark forces.
Some of the installations in the National Portrait Gallery exhibition are less effective than others, including two from 1996 featuring Viola breathing, or not breathing. In Nine Attempts to Achieve Immortality, a goateed Viola stares silently ahead and holds his breath for as long as he can… nine times in a row. It just reminded me of the angry but amusing threats of a preschooler whose tantrum isn’t scaring anyone. In Incrementation, Viola’s face again is shown, this time next to a red LED display that counts his inhalations so I saw him age briefly while I was aging in real time without my own LED counter.
While every puzzle piece might not fit in the picture, the overall impact of the exhibition is a powerful interplay of performance and video art, an artful dance between suspense and animation, revealing the power of the human spirit to endure grief, survive tragedy, and face one’s own mortality without fear or regret.
Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait is up through May 7, 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery.