“… but they move”

I first encountered Bill Viola’s work before flat screens were a “thing” and art exhibits were mostly comprised of, you know, paint on canvas or maybe a sculpture or tapestry or jewelry or furniture… okay, nevermind, there are a lot of forms that art can take. HOWEVER, video art was new to me.

I grew up in the Los Angeles area, so I went to the J. Paul Getty Museum often enough that the memories of individual visits run together, but I vividly remember the first time I saw one of Viola’s exhibits. It was called “The Passions.” Each framed screen contained a barely moving image of someone undergoing an intense emotional experience. If you weren’t much paying attention, you probably wouldn’t have detected that the images were moving because the speed of the film had been reduced to an almost imperceptible degree. Some people found this boring; I was completely mesmerized. He captured the raw emotion of photography along with something else I hadn’t seen before — a sense of immediacy, maybe? It was emotion made real in art. It seemed to be happening right in front of me, over and over in an agonizing loop. Each face registered grief or astonishment or joy with strange clarity — the wrinkles in the skin slowly creased, the breathing slowed to the point it seemed to have stopped, the eyes lost focus and gradually looked away. I remember thinking “so that’s what it really looks like when someone is crumbling…” It was hard to watch, actually.

One of the most memorable pieces, Emergence, was shown on a large screen, depicting two grieving women draped on what appears to be a tomb. Though there are a number of interpretations, it seems appropriate to reflect upon the clear themes of death and resurrection as we prepare to celebrate Easter. (Whoever posted this video added the music; I think the exhibit was silent).

In this next video, Viola shares the inspiration behind his exhibition and makes connections between the static paintings of the original masters and his more fluid interpretations made possible through the use of video technology. As John Walsh, the curator of the exhibit, observes, “They look a lot like old master paintings… but they move.”

Viola’s observation that “individual existence is … continuous” (3) is made clear through these works. The unbroken, holistic depiction of these moments takes traditional art to a new place in which the viewer witnesses the entire evolution of an emotion instead of a mere snapshot, or “highlight” (3). While these works are not interactive in the way that Viola envisions the future of video technology, he does manipulate the film speed in such a way that he has dismantled the traditional understanding of video production (10). In doing so, he clearly demonstrates that data space affords new opportunities for conveying new ways of seeing.