Critics’ Picks

Bill Viola, The Dreamers, 2013, four-channel HD video projection, color, sound. Production still. Photo: Kira Perov.


Bill Viola

Blain|Southern | London
4 Hanover Square
June 5 - July 27

In the first room of Bill Viola’s latest museum-scale exhibition is the piece Chapel of Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures, 2013, where unproductive scenarios are played out across nine horizontal wall-mounted screens that are arranged in a three-by-three composition. A couple stands face-to-face, perpetually striking each other and then reconciling. A man alone at night digs a hole in the soil only to fill it again, continually repeating the same action. These scenes all operate around a central screen, the only one not featuring an entire human figure. In this screen we see a hand, which pours water into a broken glass bowl that then trickles out the cracks. It’s instantly recognizable as it is pointless, questioning the viewer’s own everyday chores, activities, and relationships with others.

In another room, two separate projections that make up Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, 2013, are screened onto black granite blocks and depict an elderly man and woman. Both are naked and slowly and ritualistically examine their bodies using a small torch as though they were in front of a mirror. They search themselves, then eventually turn off their lights and fade into darkness, almost in acceptance of their end.

In the artist’s previous works such as The Reflecting Pool, 1977–79, or Ocean Without a Shore, 2007, individuals emerge from water into a new state of being, like a baptism. However, here, on the basement level of the gallery, in The Dreamers, 2013, seven people are engulfed in what seems to be an eternal slumber within a seabed. Each screen acts like a portrait, as only the movements of bubbles escaping from their nostrils or the occasional eyelid flicker interrupt the otherwise static imagery. One wants them to wake as we wait for the gasp for air that never comes. With influences such as Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism, Viola’s works have a sacred quality and standing before them often feels ceremonial. As viewers peer into the dark they are confronted with the fragilities of the human experience, in a way that is both unsettling and comforting at the same time.