PRINT September 1993

Bill Viola’s The Passing

ONE OF THE most important events in the last thirty years of art history has been the use of the new, populist, commercial technology of television in the service of what may be art’s most ancient and esoteric ambition: the articulation of those inarticulate states of being, the almost unnameable sensations and feelings that traverse the subject’s interior silence. Seemingly too elusive, too protean, to bring into focus, these states seem to force us to regard them skeptically—as mirages, swiftly changing currents, too transient to be influential. In fact they are the eddies of the unconscious’ undertow. The question is: can television evoke them without rationalizing away their intense and uncanny meaningfulness? Can it declare them in all the intricacy so unsettling to ordinary consciousness and experience?

Bill Viola shows that the specious present of television space is paradoxically perfect for articulating the inarticulate. With their postnarrative sequencing, postmontage splices, and irreal textures, his videotapes destroy the illusion of unmediated vision resuscitated by every new visual tool; with their abrupt shifts—or, better, meltdowns—of imagery and point of view, Viola’s videos convey a radical state of consciousness inseparable from the awareness of mystical personal sensation. They seem not just to alter one’s consciousness but to uproot one’s being. For it is only when one is in a state of boundless need, of frustration, of feeling emptied so completely it seems one can never be fulfilled again, that the inarticulate is hallucinatorily evident.

This condition seems to inhabit a spacetime all its own, which Viola’s videos project precipitously into ours. They disclose universes of sensation and emotion that we never knew existed but that were there all along, for they are the fundament of our existence. A recurrent feeling in Viola’s tapes is that of almost drowning. Again and again he creates the sensation of sinking into the oblivion of water. It is a radical image, reaching to the roots of being; indeed, with simplicity and inevitability, it raises the issue of whether to be or not—even of why there is being (especially human being), Heidegger’s ultimate metaphysical question. Many Viola works are installations that literally surround one, as though submerging one in water. Perhaps for him this submersion is an equivalent of what he and other self-avowed mystics call the “Via Negativa”—the renunciation or death-in-life necessary for illumination. But illumination never quite comes in a Viola tape. It is, after all, a private, inward event, which gives no sign of itself and which may or may not occur. The drowning image—the sense of helpless, hopeless immersion in water—does not summon it but only positions us for its possibility.

The Passing, 1991, opens with an image of the night sky, which changes into a sheet of water in which a draped human figure struggles not to drown. Will he be saved? It seems so: a suicidal leap into water reverses itself, the leaper returning to the sky. But then the artist appears underwater, as though drowned, or, perhaps, as though identifying with his child in the womb—or is it with his mother? The tape is ostensibly about the child’s birth and the mother’s death, which coincided closely. Yet the the real content and mystery of The Passing are the emergence from water and the sinking beneath it. The family milestones are not of the tape’s essence—they simply provide occasions, however complex, for the drowning image, which recurs in virtually all Viola’s works.

The image objectifies both claustrophobia and agoraphobia. In the oscillation between these two anxieties, Hanna Segal writes, “Claustrophobic anxiety forces [one] out, only to be confronted by agoraphobic anxiety of falling into a void—uncontained and disintegrating.”1 Together these twin terrors constitute the annihilative anxiety fundamental to all being: the fear that the self will disintegrate. It is a fear that usually remains unconscious, emerging into awareness only with some psychic disintegration.

Eloquently and subtly, Viola articulates this mother of all anxieties. And he does so through television, signaling that art can still be profound, innovative, and startling while also appealing to a broad audience. Perhaps the populist look of Viola’s work is only the imagination’s way of disguising itself, as it must to endure in consciousness, for we tend to try to repress what it unearths, and for good reason: to know the sensory-affective fundament of existence is to risk being destroyed by it. However subliminally, art has always been a bearer of bad news (mixed with a little mystical good). We have a tendency to shoot such messengers. But Viola’s videos, though harrowing, seem to self-destruct in the very process of being shown—they are an immaterial visual stream, Styx and Lethe in one—so there is no object to destroy, only an effect to work through.

Appropriating a technology seemingly too worldly for imaginative purpose, indeed so universal it seems banal, Viola shows that art can meet the world halfway without losing its soul. He also shows post-Modern maximalism at its most engulfing and inclusive: Viola’s installations are Gesamtkunstwerke, integrating architecture, sculpture, flat imagery, sound, theater, and above all the individual spectator—the focus and center of these works, which really only exist when viewed by a participant/observer. Thus Viola returns art to an ambition of early-avant-garde performance: he shows it rejuvenating itself by becoming “impure.” For Viola, the Gesamtkunstwerk restores art to the grandeur of its original meaningfulness.

Donald Kuspit



1. Hanna Segal, Dream, Fantasy, and Art, London and New York: Routledge, 1991, p. 54.