[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Say the word “video” and what might jump instantly to mind is one of those rousing, throbbing rock music videos, J-Los and Justin and Eminem doing their noisy, amplified, sometimes vulgar thing. Or you might think of news videos shot all over the world and spliced and diced for daily consumption, a whiz-bang nightly meal of tragedy and triumph, car chases and airplane disasters, acts of courage and acts of cowardice. We go out into the world now armed with our own video cameras to capture untoward moments, errant cops or abusive moms. Or we turn those cameras on ourselves, recording our most intimate moments–the birth of a baby, an act of love.
We have become camera-laden, video-saturated, self-invasive, replaying ourselves back to ourselves. But with the medium so pervasive and invasive, can it actually be turned back into art? Is such a thing possible? For years, I have kept a sort of half- eye on so-called video artists, but I’ve always been somewhat inured to their work.
My skepticism ended when I came up recently to the Getty Museum here in West Los Angeles and stood face to face with this face, the first work in an exhibition by Bill Viola. I’d heard his name over the years, read about the show, but standing here, I was stunned, moved, made silent. I watched this man’s “six faces” for 10 minutes as they transmuted, with inviting gradualness, into the emotions of full-tilt joy, sorrow, anger, fear and awe. It’s sneaky, subversively interactive.
Will he smile? Why, when, why not? Can I help him? Shhh. Be quiet. Leave him alone. The exhibition was called “Passions,” 13 works Viola has made in the last three years, mostly the same way, shooting actors with 35-millimeter film at seven times normal speed and then slowing it way down when he transfers it to video.
The idea is to capture emotion in movement, as it sneaks its way through the brain, body and soul, erupting into a smile, a silent howl, a grimace, as in this grouping called “The Quintet of the Astonished,” four men and one woman yielding to their deepest feelings, tethered to each other but alone– a slow-motion ballet of agony and astonishment. People wander through the quiet, darkened galleries saying nothing, smiling maybe, standing mute, riveted, drawn towards the screens and thrown back on themselves at the same time. What are these people looking at?
Their reactions are so palpable, so deep, so unlike the tears jerked with such triumphant regularity from the talk show guests of America who willingly open themselves to the probing questions of the hosts and the prying eyes of the camera, knowingly turning their grief into voyeuristic fodder. Not these people.
Nor these two, whose tears are endless. There is no closure here. This entire show makes a mockery of that. This entire show makes a mockery of that, as it does our jaded sense of awe. “Oh, no,” Viola’s work says, “wonder anew.” Look at this, the culmination of the show: Five angels of the millennium, five huge flat screens of water with light percolating through it. A strange rumbling comes from this one or that one, the passersby turning as one, as the noise erupts from one then the other and whoosh, up comes a body, flying up or is it down, being born or is it dying? You’re enveloped in this mix of wonder and terror all at the same time. Remembering, all sense of what it means to feel alive, human, humane. We cannot ask more of art than that.
I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.