On moving and being moved

Zsuzsanna Soboslay sees Bill Viola

Bill Viola, Four Hands 2001

Bill Viola, Four Hands 2001

“What is the answer?’ [Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, receives no reply.] ‘Then what is the question?”

The first time I saw a medieval gilt altar-piece in the British Museum (as opposed to a reproduction), I stood in awe, and cried. For the first time I understood the relationship between passion, art, and devotion—both why these artworks were revered and what kinds of reverences they held. Madonnas, the Christ as man and child; delicate, almost boneless human frailty, richly felt and even more richly framed. Caught in the zeugma of such transcendent vulnerability, I am amazed: adoring, aghast, awash, ashamed, I am touched into wonder at the interweaving between the art, my life, suffering, the body, identification and difference. These pulls and tugs forge an empathy between my own and the others’ sufferings.

Standing before Bill Viola’s The Passions—themselves a result of studying medieval and Renaissance devotional works at the Getty Institute (part of a larger multi-participant research programme in 1998)—I am not so forged or tugged. I am not even sure I am touched. I observe hands touching, holding, carrying, moving others on. I am not asked to be these people, recognise them in me. I am, however, moved and carried; I observe and ride the waves of motion-in-emotion that I see. This is a different order of watching being asked of me.

So much has been written and spoken about Bill Viola’s work that I can barely begin to comment. The current viewing season of The Passions at the NGA has spawned so many offshoots and events that it is hard not to be buffeted and distracted by them. Chunky Move will do a short choreographic residency, John Bell will give a lecture on actors’ passions, and good luck to them. But I am not at all sure that these are of any real use.

There is much chatter circulating about whether Viola’s actors’ ‘enactments’ are ‘real’, or ‘not real.’ Surely we can leave that debate to reality TV. I don’t care whether or not Viola’s people are actors. In some of his pieces, I like better than in others what they ‘do.’ But the strengths in the works do not, for me, rely on how well-played or ‘true’ are the passions they represent. It is what they are sculpted into, and their peculiar affect, that concerns me.

Unlike the Getty masterworks, Viola’s contemplations are largely stripped of contexts. They refer to, but enact, their iconographic references differently. The Christ who ‘resurrects’ is in fact still dead, falling again into his devotees’ arms (there goes god). In another, a procession of mourners one by one approach a (mangled? decimated?) body we never see (there goes identification through empathy). We watch instead effects—though limited—of horrors, separations, catastrophes. Indeed, one does not ‘move on’ from the captured moment (or ‘pass through’ death or grief), as some have worried: nor yet examine the different ways we experience them (for example, through laughter, numbness, or nervous breakdown). I am aware not so much of an exploration of variety, but of a pallette which restricts itself intentionally.

Jonathon Lahey Dronsfield (in The Art of Bill Viola review compendium), an ethicist and philosopher, has great trouble with Viola’s restrictions. His essay, “On the Anticipation of Responsibility”, worries that his works carry no “questions that are not predetermined in the works themselves”, that there is nothing left ‘yet to come’; that they take away, even from death, “what cannot be anticipated about it”:

There is no sense of the possibility of our making a contribution to the image, no way we can intervene and assist; …we are left merely to ‘share’ or not in the experience of what is presented,…the prelude to a guaranteed answer…the room for one answer only…[the asserted mystery of things].

Indeed, the joys of The Passions are rarely ones of surprise. Even the intermittent rumblings of the massive installation, 5 Angels for the Millenium, which pre-empt the whale-like leap of swathed human figures from ocean depths, become more subliminal as one stays in that twilit, night-sound buzzing room. The major experience of the work becomes immersion within cycles of emergence and return. As one walks through the entire exhibition from dark to lighter rooms, all the works—enormous, back-projected, or on smaller LCD or medium-sized plasma screens—repetition without progress is a major force. I am not sure if repeated viewing is of any gain.

We now look on the 19th century ‘science’ of physiognomy as a kind of dark horror, exploitative of the disabled, a heinous categorisation of extremes of emotion as a tool of social control. Yet taking measure of emotions is something I believe Viola shares with the theorists and painters (such as Le Brun and the Duchenne de Boulogne) he studied during the Getty project. I say this, bearing in mind that Viola’s work notebooks exhibit a high degree of compassionate and humane observation of the human condition.

In a strange sense, the pieces in The Passions are moving stills. Utilising the body as a tekhne, or art-tool, Viola captures an emotion’s trajectory, much as stop-frame photography would the progressive blooming of a flower. We observe, do not interpret or interfere. But we do watch something follow its full course.

Viola’s video tekhne is of course extremely high: the quality of images and projections; the slowing of the films; the strength of his compositions, brooding and spilling in waves of motion and emotion not just within single frames, but also across and between many. These waves establish relationships between diptychs and triptychs, and between other works in the same and adjacent rooms. One accumulates a rhythmic, rather than verbal, narrative. One’s breathing slows.

What touches is not so much the realism, nor the comprehensiveness, of the enactments—this is not psychoanalysis, nor less a purification ritual, as in Buddhist meditation—but that I am called to accompany the enactments: stay with them, not baulk, turn away, or interfere. And this is what touches me: like the mourners who touch and move each other through the camera frame in Observance, I am moved through, and on. I am entrained and held.

It makes sense that 5 Angels…, a separate work, concludes this exhibition, because it heightens the motion of the whole: from immersion to eruption, and to immersion again. Plasma, miasma, placenta, bardo. Emergence: potentiality. Awash. The breakthrough of an epoch, or the single thought of a single mind. Surges. Another motion wave. In a sense, each of the Passion ‘portraits’ are emergences of feeling through screen membranes. None is about ‘what is yet to come’, but what is coming anyway.

Perhaps for me the favourite: the chosen shapes of Four Hands. Like Buddhist mudras, simple shapes distill symbolic form. The hands perform motions beneath emotion, the shapes beneath shape-making, That is much.

Bill Viola, The Passions, National Gallery of Australia, July 29-Nov 6

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 46

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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