Bill Viola, The Raft, video still, Video installation / sound, 9 x 7 x 4 meters, high definition color video projected on the wall (396.2 x 223 cm) darkened space, surround sound system, Starring: Sheryl Arenson, Robin Bonaccorsi, Rocky Capella, Cathy Chang, Liisa Cohen, Tad Coughenour, James Ford, Michael Irby, Karimian Simon, John Kim, Tanya Little, Mike Martinez, Petros Martirosian, Jeff Mosley, Gladys Peters, Maria Victoria, Kaye Wade, Kim Weild, Ellis Williams, 10:33 minutes.

Bill Viola, The Raft, video still, Video installation / sound, 9 x 7 x 4 meters, high definition color video projected on the wall (396.2 x 223 cm) darkened space, surround sound system, Starring: Sheryl Arenson, Robin Bonaccorsi, Rocky Capella, Cathy Chang, Liisa Cohen, Tad Coughenour, James Ford, Michael Irby, Karimian Simon, John Kim, Tanya Little, Mike Martinez, Petros Martirosian, Jeff Mosley, Gladys Peters, Maria Victoria, Kaye Wade, Kim Weild, Ellis Williams, 10:33 minutes.

Bill Viola's The Raft as a Notion of Shared Comfort and Consolation

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
4525 Oak Street
816-751-1278
Kansas City
Bloch Building, Gallery L8
The Raft
January 21-April 29, 2012

By HALLIE SMITH

The title of Bill Viola’s video installation The Raft, 2004, on view at Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is inevitably evocative of Theodore Gericault’s large and notable painting The Raft of Medusa (1818-19). However, the video's opening scene may temporarily leave a viewer to question the validity of this initial association. The silence and minimal aesthetic is at first deceptive, but it later becomes obvious Viola is paying more the than the average artistic homage to the work from which the film has drawn its title. Midway through, The Raft begins to unfold more as though it were a living, moving, breathing extension of Gericault’s painterly images, a two-dimensional drama that has been recaptured through human choreography, displayed in new form, and brought to new life through the medium of video art.

In both works, the dominant theme is the strength of human spirit, life, and the collective struggle against imminent threats of death. Despite the time span of nearly two centuries between the two works, Viola’s version of the same subject matter begs the question that despite the progress made (although progress is always a relative term) since Medusa sailed the sea, we are no safer from harm. Hurricane Katrina and other recent random acts of nature are continual reminders that the answer, of course, is obvious.

Viola’s minimalist backdrop and soundless use of sound serve to magnify the quiet and subtle intensity of the tensions found in a seemingly mundane everyday setting. Each actor’s pre-disaster behavior and body language reveals banal acts of self-protection, an instinct we all have for our own self-preservation above all, a form of self-preservation that is arguably as psychological as it is physical. Clearly avoiding any racial stereotypes, The Raft’s multicultural cast can be read as an expression of the universal yet diverse scope of human behavior, and Viola seems to suggest behavior is not always a matter of culture, but is perhaps equally rooted in the ego and its quest for individuality. Differentiating oneself from others, and the subtle ways in which one attempts to separate oneself from the group are expressions of this effort, and are inevitable extensions of less obvious, daily acts of self-preservation.

 

What is most intriguing about the video is that although it objectively climaxes in a moment of natural disaster, a scene in which the actors on screen are suddenly hit from all sides by torrents of gushing water, it is the ending that reveals the real and underlying human drama. Prior to this, when the disaster has hit, the film suddenly shifts and individuals struggle to survive and take cover as incoming waters increase with intensity until they finally, quietly, and eerily begin to subside. The more poignant drama unfolds as the water’s intensity is replaced by another intensity, seen in the overt displays of human bonding. Those in a more subjective state of mind might find that the greatest intensity is in the aftermath, as the previous pre-storm state of disconnection between survivors, who had once been strangers, dissolves.

The Raft’s closing moments are undeniably touching and the acts of comfort and consolation the characters display for each other come forth genuinely. The experience is moving, even for the unharmed voyeur watching from a safe distance. The slightly more cynical viewer, however, might walk away with a secondary impression: the notion that the changed individuals we see in frame at the end of the film would never have let down their habitual guard had nature not knocked out of them. One might also begin to reflect on the observation that more often than not the tendency to express our vulnerability, to comfort and commune with our neighbors only manifests itself later, when it is has been forced. Empathy, sympathy, and gratitude are words of hindsight and it is only after a storm has passed that once-distant strangers begin to take on a sense of community.

Then again, there are times when even the more cynical viewer comes to terms with her own share of inescapable sentimentality. When reminded of the constant threats under which humans always have, and always will live, one cannot deny or escape the never-ending beauty in our collectivity, and the seemingly innate capacity and need within every individual to show our vulnerability and openly bond with others. The trick, it seems, the challenge presented to us all, is to act as openly, genuinely, and, with any luck, as compassionately when skies are clear. Ultimately this cliché of a statement, in all its solid, if less-than-original, truism, leaves further room to reflect not only on nature’s dangerous unpredictability, but also on the nature of life’s more mundane scenes, the moments that after any disaster seem like a precious resource.

Jean Louis Théodore Géricault (1791-1824), The Raft of the Medusa (Le Radeau de la Méduse), 1819, oil on canvas, 4.91 x 7.16 m, courtesy Louvre, Paris.

 

Bill Viola, Videostill, Ocean without a shore, 2007, Venice Biennale.

The Rising and Sinking of the Male Subject in Bill Viola's The Messenger

Bill Viola, Videostill, Study for Emergence, 2002, Color video on freestanding vertical LCD flat panel, LCD screen: 11-3/4 X 14-5/8", Edition of 3.

Bill Viola, Videostill, Mary, 2000, Video and sound installation, Edition of 3.

 

Haunch of Venison
Heidestrasse 46
+ 49 (0)30 39 74 39 63
Berlin
Bill Viola, Installations / Screenings
January 9-February 21, 2009

Haunch of Venison Berlin will this winter present of a series of works from the internationally renowned US artist Bill Viola, in his first solo exhibition in Berlin in six years.

The exhibition includes the large-scale video/sound installation The Messenger (1996) originally commissioned for Durham Cathedral by the Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation, North East England. It depicts the continual rising and sinking of a male figure as he slowly journeys between a blue-black underwater realm and the bright daylight of the world above its surface.

New works will also be presented from the Transfigurations series — a cyclical progression of images that describe a series of encounters at the intersection between life and death. The first in this series was the three channel installation Ocean Without a Shore (2007) created for the 52nd Venice Biennale. In Berlin the works shown will be single and multiple channel pieces, with one piece, Small Saints (2008), using six tiny OLED screens, a new technology with special luminance.

During the 59th Berlin International Film Festival, Berlinale, two early video films will be screened in the main space of the gallery as part of Forum expanded. Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) (1981, 57 minutes) is structured on the cycle of one day, images gradually moving from light into darkness, presenting a visual journey through the landscape of Japan from the rural areas of the far North to the underworld nighttime scenes of the streets of modern Tokyo.

The Passing (1991, 54 minutes) is a personal response by the artist to the spiritual extremes of birth and death in his family. Black and white nocturnal imagery and underwater scenes depict a twilight environment hovering on the borders of human perception and consciousness.

For over 35 years, the work of Bill Viola has focused on universal human experiences. Viola is renowned for creating installations, videotapes and sound performances that present manifestations of the human form undergoing various states of transformation and renewal. His work has been instrumental in the establishment and development of video as a contemporary artistic practice, while his writings and lectures have disseminated his ideas to a wide international audience. Viola continues to break new ground, both technologically and aesthetically, and has inspired a generation of media artists and filmmakers.

Bill Viola, Acceptance, 2008, Black-and-white High-Definition video on plasma display mounted on wall, h: 155.5 x w: 92.5 x d: 12.7 cm.

Bill Viola, Videostill, The Fall into Paradise, 2005, Video/sound installation, Screen size: 10.5 ft. X 14 ft. (320 cm x 427 cm), 9 minutes and 58 seconds, Photograph Kira Perov.

Bill Viola, Videostill, Union, 2000, Two channels of color video on two plasma displays mounted side-by-side, vertically on wall , 8 minute loop, 40-1/2 X 50 X 7", Edition of 5.