For the first major survey of video artist Bill Viola in Istanbul, Kathleen Forde, the NYC-based curator of experiential art, designed the show ‘Impermanence’ at Borusan Contemporary, featuring 10 works, from ‘Chott el-Djerid’ (1979) to ‘The Trial’ (2015)
Suspense is a key ingredient in the work of Bill Viola. All seems normal for the first half of “The Raft” (2004), the opening piece of “Impermanence,” shown on Borusan Contemporary’s second floor. Inside the exquisite waterfront building, which rises in shortening stacks of brick on a stone along with a spiking tower like a sandcastle, curator Kathleen Forde outlined intriguing contiguity of video screenings.
In its remote form, through still images and texts by Google Arts and Culture, accompanied by the digital guide from Borusan Contemporary, the conceptual narrative fashioned out of Viola’s oeuvre is essentially lost. In lieu of entering a physical space, in which the experience of the exhibition fans out along a course of works situated relative to their specific time, volume and proximity, online viewing segregates each work.
The itemization and disconnection of works into individuated media environments remove the overall curatorial project from its source. What is left are meanderings by which to become more familiar with the artist, and his output, but the grander purpose and trajectory of square meters for art in the city is severely diminished. As a metaphor, “The Raft” traumatizes a sociological pastiche into an equalizing state of emergency.
The diverse spectrum of the people, their clothes and skin, is reduced to a blast of blue and gray, as a high-pressure hose fills the frame, obscuring a woman’s orange sundress, a man’s purple shirt, into flailing shadows. As the rush of water subsides, the colors of the people reappear only darkened. Their mood changes from that of a benign crowd waiting for the metro into a climate of forced interdependence based on immediate need.
Reminiscent of the slow-motion videography of Israeli artist Yael Bartana, who has exhibited works at Dirimart in Istanbul, the prepared scenes that Viola enacts for the camera are imbued with unsuspecting gravity. In the dramatic sequence of “The Raft,” which could be said to have three acts, the last moments of the 10-minute piece are filled with memorable human interaction, face-to-face encounters of vulnerable desperation and mutual suffering.
A distant society
Forde curated “The Raft” in a room of its own, sequestered away six other works on the second floor of Borusan Contemporary, where they are bunched together. The interior of one of Istanbul’s more isolated arts institutions is austere, perfect for the dim atmosphere in which videos inspire cerebral curiosity. The piece, “Ancestors” (2012) bridges themes in “The Raft” with motifs that recur throughout “Impermanence,” namely, the meaning of interpersonal connection.
“Ancestors” is set in the steaming savannah, as the blurry, mirage-like equatorial landscape wavers with humidity. A pair emerge, by outer appearances male and female, dressed modernly. Instead of water as in “The Raft,” a light sandstorm picks up and obscures the field of vision. But the couple is undeterred. They approach with gaining intimacy, as the textile of their clothes become vivid.
Yet, before the facial expressions of the performers are visible, they walk offscreen in “Ancestors.” It seems a counter expression to the idea that the past if it were embodied and personified, has any direct concern for the present. The complexities of experience and time have multivalent effects on identity and selfhood. If it is the case that Viola is making a statement about ancestral awareness, he is critiquing its tendencies to solipsism.
The feeling that the present moment is of utmost importance is embraced by both modernism and its interpretations of cultures that adhere to non-Western approaches to the passage of time. As a reflection of new technology or at least current paradigm shifts in the wake of late capitalist industrialization, video art is an apt medium. By universalizing all of human life as a simulacrum of social norms in his work, Viola is on the fringe of consciousness.
As a perspective, or functions of distance, both spatial and temporal, are necessary for critical observation, Viola performs the role of witness with a poignant, reflexive sensibility. Early in his career with “Chott el-Djerid” (1979), Viola formed his visual vocabulary, enacting varieties of remoteness in dialogue with isolated territories. Within austere, minimalist desert backgrounds inspired by the North African wilderness, figures dot and mark vast expanses.
To meet in person
As in “Ancestors,” Viola portrayed a pair of women walking to the lens in slow-motion over bleak earth for “The Encounter” (2012). They are dressed like spiritual wanderers and initially move along with a gap between them, until, without a moment’s hesitation they turn inward and converge head-on. One of them is older, loosely dressed in a dark red ensemble, while the other, her younger companion, is in a lightly dyed dress.
The two women in “The Encounter” exchange an object, hold each other’s hands firmly and stare into each other’s eyes passionately. The subtext is to symbolize the transmission of experience between generations. But there is disquiet to their meeting, as the elder is drawn with concern. She has knowledge of the world, in which nothing is guaranteed, everything is malleable and every order of presumption changes like time.
The New York Times published an excerpt from “Three Women” (2008) by Viola, identifying him as a pioneer in video art. As part of his “Transfigurations” series, in which he charts the effect of time on a person’s inner transformation, the curation at Borusan Contemporary references Sufi mystic Ibn al’ Arabi. “Three Women” is an attempt to express the spiritual notion of the self as a shoreless ocean, or, in other words, as bearing an eternal nature.
That there is an apparent metamorphosis on the surface of what is perceivable to the faculties of sense, that is, to the body, is, to artists and mystics alike, reason enough to prove that boundlessness and infinity are cruxes on which alterity, or difference, stands. Through a grainy film frame, a trio of women stands together, thinly clad. The lady in the center is tallest. She breaks from the pack, pushes through a waterfall and comes out in full color.
Viola adapts the history of the moving image in his video art. His tactful switching between color, and black-and-white, carefully directing offscreen eye-movement, the use of falling water and generally dramatizing human emotion both particularize and deepen wider appreciation for the craft of motion-picture photography and the many elements of theatrical and design work that it implies.
"I guess I have been interested in the spiritual side of things since I was very young. But the form it took was me, in a very quiet way, simply looking with great focus at the ordinary things around me that I found wondrous. I still do today,” Viola said for a 2014 interview with The Guardian, in which he was celebrated as the Rembrandt of the video age. “I have my music and my tea, and I come up with ideas.”