Bill Viola’s “Liber Insularum” is, in a word, powerful. It brings to mind the transcendental power of Ann Hamilton’s recent Park Avenue Armory show, “The Event of a Thread,” where billowy white curtains coupled with pulley supported swings worked in concert with the monotonous readings of philosophical and spiritual prose. Here, instead of integrating the viewer into a strange world created through participatory installation, Viola uses digital media as a tool to directly communicate with and even separate his audience from the artistic creation, giving them the space to observe and contemplate the world in which they live. His work is a reminder to slow down, to see, and to breathe, as it calls into question all that is missed on the road traveled through life.
Bill Viola, Film still of The Quintet of the Astonished (2000), Color video rear projection on screen mounted on wall in dark room, Projected image size: 55 X 94.5 in. room dimensions variable; © Bill Viola/ Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami.
The Quintet of the Astonished (2000) is the first video encountered. It is given its own room, just as many of the works. Five people, one woman and four men, are huddled together against a dark backdrop but never face, and the scene is reminiscent of a biblical one. Light shines upon them, and all but one appear to be suffering or concerned. For most of the video, the central figure in the back possesses an expression that is relaxed and calm. The fear present in the others' faces are missing in his. This man embraces the moment. Is he the only one at peace with his life and actions? Is this a scene anticipating a world on the brink of its end? Only the viewer knows, as he watches and mindfully digests the situation placed before him. Initially the actors appear frozen, but after only a few moments, it becomes apparent that each one is in a slow and very deliberately held motion. Their bodies and faces gradually shift and a tension is created. Even though they are placed inches apart, the actors seem isolated and alone and the pain of human existence is revealed, one where the participants are connected but always separate, each confined to his or her body, thoughts, emotions, and impressions, never to be completely discovered by the other.
In Catherine’s Room (2001), a color video polyptech on five LCD flat panels all mounted to a wall, a very different story is conveyed. Here Buddhist principles of simplicity and mindfulness become apparent. A female performer is shown in five separate scenes, all of the same size and set within the same room. A single window exists in the upper right corner of the frame, which, in addition to the objects in the room, gives the viewer a reference point for the time of day, the cycle of life, or, if read from a more spiritual point of view, as one of the elements: earth, air, water, fire, and the esoteric. In each scene the actor performs different functions from yoga, lighting candles, to sleeping. The viewer is positioned as voyeur, able to observe an uneventful, yet very intentional life, one that might offer a counter to, or possibly a reinforcement of, his own.
The quiet magnificence of this exhibition is due, in large part, to the way each of these videos is presented, mostly in dark or low-lit rooms with only a single or very few pieces in each, and the minimalist design and intimacy of the MOCA itself. A small structure with few rooms and frills, if any, the space functions as merely a support or backdrop, barely noticed after entering the exhibition while transitioning through the space. The fifteen works shown within “Liber Insularum” are most effective when given the attention and time to connect with each piece, and the exhibition’s curator, Roc Laseca, sets the stage for this to occur. It is not an exhibition to be taken lightly or to be breezed through. Viola’s work gets more powerful each second attention is paid, much like the message he constructs. Whether or not you are a fan of video art is inconsequential; Viola’s sensitivity, the primary tool with which he accesses your psyche and speaks to your fears, is universally appreciable.