Art in Motion

August 20, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now to the story of an artist who has turned a video camera into a paintbrush. Spencer Michels in San Francisco reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: In 12 minutes, a man is consumed by flames. On the other side of the large screen in this dark room, the same man is doused to extinction with water. The medium is video art, a genre that encompasses almost any image that a video camera can record. This 1996 work, called "The Crossing" by video artist Bill Viola, is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, part of a 25-year survey of viola’s art. It has already drawn crowds in Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Experiencing video art is not like looking at paintings on a well-lit museum wall. In here, it’s dark and noisy and full of surprises.

SPOKESMAN: And you’re just visiting here?


SPENCER MICHELS: 48-year-old Viola, a pioneer in the video art movement, has become one of its most well- known practitioners.

SPOKESMAN: Good luck with your work.

SPENCER MICHELS: Turning video into serious art began in the early 70’s, when Viola was first experimenting with it. For him, video art was a natural evolution.

BILL VIOLA: I think we’re in an age where artists really have an incredible range of materials at their command now. They can use almost anything from household items– Jackson Pollock used house paint– to, you know, advanced computer systems, to good old oil paint and acrylic paint. So I’ve always thought of this medium as a really exciting medium for creating personal visions.

SPENCER MICHELS: But for Viola, the medium is not the message. It’s just a means to an end.

BILL VIOLA: When you go to see Rembrandt, you don’t go to see oil paint on canvas, you go to have a real human experience with the people that’s he’s depicted in his work. Go to frame 20,000.

SPENCER MICHELS: Viola began working with video while in art school, and like all video artists, he had to master the technical side of his art: Electronics, optics, lighting, display. But that, he says, is not the essence of what he’s doing.

BILL VIOLA: And at one point, almost by magic, you realize all of that work that you put in, that conscious work with the medium, just sort of falls away, and the medium itself just disappears. It’s like when you learn to play the piano. You’re struggling with notes, and then one day, further down the road, you realize you have your eyes closed, you’re not thinking about the notes, and you’re just playing music.

SPENCER MICHELS: The music Viola is playing deals with a man’s place in the world: What it means to be alive. In "The Crossing," he is showing transcendence, transformation of man to a higher state, a common theme in Eastern and Western religions.

BILL VIOLA: Now some people might see that as a negative kind of image, the end of the line, the end of the road, the finite aspect of our existence. But I see that in a very positive way, in the sense that when that man leaves, he’s not struggling. He’s opening his arms, he’s surrendering, in a way, and allowing himself to be consumed and therefore to be transformed.

SPENCER MICHELS: In the darkened chambers of the museum, it is often difficult to fathom Viola’s meaning. This work, "Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House," is ominous and disturbing. (Crash)

BILL VIOLA: When you come into my pieces, it’s not an intellectual experience, it’s a physical experience. It’s coming at your body. There’s light, there’s sound, the lights in some pieces are going on and off. There’s loud roaring sound happening. It’s not about this part of your body. It’s about this, and your whole being. And it’s not until after you have that experience that you could possibly even begin to sort of think about what it means, which I think is correct. (Whispering)

SPENCER MICHELS: In "The Stopping Mind," Viola has four screens of violently moving video, with a whispering voice that can only be heard above the din when you stand in the middle of the room.

VIDEO: (Whispering): …The oblivion of nothing, the oblivion of nothing.

BILL VIOLA: This piece is about the place of the self in the world, and we are literally at the center of our world. It’s only the result of you standing in a position. — (Crash) — and looking as far as you can see that creates that circle of your experience. (Crash)

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the difficulty viewers may have at first understanding Viola’s works, he doesn’t want his video art to be incomprehensible. He has problems with avant garde art, which he says is separate from the community and the larger culture, and needs constant explanation.

BILL VIOLA: If you go back to the Renaissance, you’ll find something very different. The artists, what the artists were saying, did not need any explanation for the public. It was absolutely integrated with the whole cultural system.

SPENCER MICHELS: In this exhibit, the viewer isn’t told the stories until after he or she finishes seeing all the works. That’s because Viola doesn’t want to impose a rigid message via wall labels.

BILL VIOLA: What that does, is it, in fact, cuts off the person at that point, with a single answer to some imaginary problem, where any artist knows from their practice that it’s not about answers, it’s about questions. You are just as qualified as any expert to make a judgment and have a feeling or a response to any work of art.

SPENCER MICHELS: Still, some viewers have had trouble with Viola’s works, and would like more explanation.

VIEWER: It made me anxious. I felt I got about 10 percent of it, because of the darkness, and no label. I didn’t know what I was seeing. The sound was overwhelming, the visual images were shocking.

SPENCER MICHELS: Her friend, an artist, was more appreciative.

ARTIST: I think it’s terrific. It’s challenging. It’s very, very meaningful, very layered, very, very evocative.

SPENCER MICHELS: Do you get it? Do you understand it?

ARTIST: Yeah. Well, to a degree, certainly.

SPENCER MICHELS: Viola likes the layered concept, as well. In the "Sleep of Reason," he videoed some friends asleep, and then surrounded them with wild images of dogs, a storm, fires.

SPENCER MICHELS: So you think nightmare?

BILL VIOLA: Yeah, that would be one interpretation of it. (Droning) What’s always going on underneath is this other layer and layers of very deeply seated and connected kinds of images and thoughts and visions that we’re mostly unaware of, in fact.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sleep and the unconscious are recurring themes for Viola. This room features of water-filled drums with submerged TV images of people sleeping. Water is another constant for Viola.

BILL VIOLA: There’s a drop of water that comes out of this little valve here, and it’s picked up by this camera with a special close-up lens on it, and every drop of water has optical properties, and therefore contains in it an image of the world around it. And so what we’re seeing up on the screen back there is an image of these people and anybody who stands here in front of this drop of water.

SPENCER MICHELS: Yeah, it’s great.

BILL VIOLA: See, here’s my hand here. See?

SPENCER MICHELS: And here’s my necktie.

BILL VIOLA: So it really picks up a lot.

SPENCER MICHELS: And in "Heaven and Earth," two opposing TV monitors show the artist’s mother on her deathbed, contrasted with yet optically merged with his son, who was born after his grandmother died.

BILL VIOLA: So you can look into this shot of a one-week-old child just opening his eyes for the first time, and you can see reflected within it an image of the death face of his grandmother, who he actually never met in real life. It’s like the famous Michelangelo two fingers — God and man not actually touching in the Sistine Chapel. It’s that kind of an idea– heaven and earth never quite meet.

SPENCER MICHELS: While the difficulty in deciphering Viola’s work is disturbing to some museum-goers, for others, experiencing art a then figuring it out is a source of surprise and excitement. Bill Viola’s video art survey moves to the Chicago Art Institute in October.