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Bill Viola: Immersive video art explores meaning of life at La Boverie in Liège
Time is suspended when travelling through the American video artist’s exploration of the human condition in Bill Viola. Sculptor of Time.
In the first major exhibition of his extraordinarily expressive work to be staged in Belgium, 18 installations embark visitors on a meditative journey.
Projecting dramatically the very essence of existence, from birth and life to death and spirituality, this is an immersive, contemplative and highly-personal experience.
As the title suggests, Viola, a pioneer of the medium, carves out time with his video works while also shaping and transforming the space they occupy.
To stage the show, La Boverie had to open up the arts museum’s interior and create new white spaces to house the installations that span the artist’s work from 1992 to 2014.
The labyrinthine circuit begins and ends with a double projection: the monumental Tristan’s Ascension and Fire Woman (main image). The darkened space evokes a cathedral, inspired by pre-Renaissance Florence, part of the artist’s career-long immersion in spiritual traditions.
The six-metre high projections are a silent baptism of fire and water that plunges the viewer into Viola’s universe, which includes a preoccupation with shadow and light.
In the first, sub-titled The Sound of a Mountain Waterfall (pictured), an inert prone man is subjected to an incandescent cascade of water before a deluge transports him up and beyond the screen. The slow-motion action serves as a metaphor for the ascent of the soul after death.
In the second video, also part of The Tristan Project that was inspired by Wagner’s opera, the fire element sparks an equally powerful reaction. A dark female figure advances towards a wall of flames, raises her arms and is consumed by the iridescent burning glow.
The subsequent installations, also screened in the dark, are intimate portrayals of scenes of daily life of varying projections and length. Only the title, date and duration accompanies each work.
Immersion in the element of water also occurs in Three Women (pictured), part of Viola’s Transfigurations series. A mother and her daughters pass through a threshold of water that marks the transition from opaque black-and-white images to full illuminated colour.
Another Italian inspiration lies behind The Greeting, a bright modern urban scene that recreates the spirit of the 16th-century painter Pontormo. The slow-motion sequence of images shows two women dressed in bright hues busy in conversation. They are joined by a third woman; every nuance of the encounter is amplified, their clothes billowing in the swirling breeze.
The 45-second painterly scene (pictured) unfolds over 10 minutes: a choreography of movement that reveals a subtle but ultimately ambiguous storyline.
In one of the two white box spaces, The Dreamers is a projection of seven people of varying age, sex and ethnicity lying underwater in a corpse-like pose. An occasional breath is taken while eyes closed, they appear at peace in this aquatic world poised between life and death.
The other contains Going Forth by Day, five simultaneously running videos that are projected onto the white walls like a moving fresco. It traces different periods of life from birth to death and rebirth, conveying a sense of shared experience that envelops the onlooker.
Born in 1951, Viola (pictured in 2010) has constantly experimented with digital technology to develop his intimate video art. This pursuit has been accompanied by a search for refining humanist and spiritual ideas. Chosen to represent the US at the 1995 Venice Biennale, his artworks have been credited with making the medium more accessible.
For Kira Perov, Viola’s wife and the artistic director of his studio, the installations on show in Liège represent many of the major themes that he has explored during his creative life.
“We see how the moving image expands notions of fragility and transience in our lives, depicting human states in all its forms,” she says.
His aim, she underlines, is to challenge perceptions. “Art today represents invisible things. The base of my work is doubt, self-knowledge, loss of self and questions, not answers.
Bill believes he has succeeded as an artist if a person walked away from his work with one image, one thought, one realisation, one feeling that they can use in their life, Perov adds. “Art for me is about waking up the soul.”
If Viola intends for the viewer to react viscerally to the images and emotions he creates, they are free to interpret each one in their own way. It’s an exercise that requires solitude and concentration of the mind, momentarily putting aside the distractions of daily life. It’s not a necessarily easy journey, but it’s one that’s a moving and thought-provoking reaction to some of the mysteries of life.
Bill Viola. Sculptor of Time
Until 28 April
Parc de la Boverie
Photos: © Bill Viola, photos Kira Perov