PRINT May 1995


The desert is a place of solitude, purification, and initiation. Paradoxical, it seems catastrophically lifeless yet is a space of spiritual life, a mysterious arena of visual and emotional reversals—the ultimate uncanny. For Bill Viola, the desert is emblematic not of loneliness but of the “inner space of the mind no telescope can reach.” Rather than an “empty, barren space,” it is a space of pure possibility, where sensations are heightened until they merge in what Viola calls the “expansive inclusive view.” There is no sense of ego, time, or thing in the desert, only of “deep connection.” The desert, Viola reiterates, is “positive,” not negative.”1

Five new pieces of Viola’s will represent the U.S. at this year’s Venice Biennale, which opens next month, and his Déserts, 1994, premiered in the U.S. at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in February. When I talked with him at the opening, he was in good form, in an open, expansive mood: composed, talkative, positively happy. Proudly, he explained the piece’s technical firsts: his first to music (Edgard Varèse’s piece of the same name) recorded by an orchestra, Frankfurt’s Ensemble Modern, for the occasion; the first in which he built his own set rather than using a found space. He was even able to create a pool of water in front of the room he constructed. He felt, he said, like an abstract painter, freely playing with imagistic variables. The desert, of course, is the piece’s star, and he didn’t build that—but he reinvented it as a mirror of his mind.

Viola cherishes the harshness of the desert, its jagged raw stone and hot shimmering space. Strangely urgent, it is a risky, dangerous place, full of rapid changes, an irregular perceptual terrain fraught with the threat of death. The desert seems to stalk one even as one stalks its sights. There is a strange tempo to its silence that Varèse’s electronic music seems to invoke, underscoring rather than punctuating it, while, parallel to and echoing it, Viola’s protean, manic crush of images seems to embody it.

Viola clearly identifies with Varèse, who wrote Déserts after a long sterile period, a twenty-year silence. The result of all those years of lost creativity and isolation—the artist like an involuntary hermit, in a desert of creative barrenness—was authentically revolutionary art: one of the first works of electronic music, one of the first works to incorporate found sound. Indeed, as Viola suggests, had Varèse not been wandering a desert of his own emotional and intellectual making it is unlikely he would have been as revolutionary as he was (although there is no guarantee that surviving a desert will make one a saint of art).

Electricity was Varèse’s model, Viola explains: Déserts moves without nodal points, like those of the Western scale. Like the desert, this electronic music has no durable markers, for the sound drifts like desert sand, changing configuration with the slightest current of wind—of mood. Varèse experimented with sounds, collaging them together. The result is an erratic flow of auratic hallucinations. The music is in perpetual transition; it has no goal beyond the immediate, particular sensation in its matrix of auratic associations. Sometimes moments emerge that seem more composed than others, that seem to transcend the auratic stream with a certain ecstatic anger. This dissonant work caused a sensation when it was first performed, in Paris in 1954. Today, in an example of what Adorno called the hypermodern effect, it sounds remarkably harmonious.

Varèse actually imagined a visual accompaniment to Déserts—a visual collage to complement his collage of pretaped music. In a way, then, Viola’s film completes his work. The Varèse/Niola collaboration is Modernist and post-Modernist simultaneously: Viola contributes to a Modernist artwork (if to the composer’s liking, we will never know) but also appropriates it for his own purposes. Yet he does so in piety and homage, maintaining the integrity of Varèse’s music, respecting its originality and unorthodoxy.

Viola’s images devolve into mirages and the mirages devolve into voids: the stream of images flows faster until there is nothing but a blinding, seamless rush of disembodied energy, a continuum in which all sense of sequence is lost. Difference is destroyed as though it never existed; finally nothing can be deciphered, not even the suggestion of a mirage. One cannot determine whether one is immersed in the proverbial stream of consciousness or in the primary process of the unconscious. It is as though one had been dropped like Achilles into the river Styx: one would surely drown if the heel of one’s mind weren’t held by the mothering camera. Finally, Déserts lifts one out of the Hadean blur to the dry land of a clear image. Like another Achilles, one has become immortal, however vulnerable one remains where the camera held one.

Viola shot the desert scenes for Déserts in Death Valley, in 120-degree heat. “I relate to the role of the mystic,” Viola has said, “in the sense of following a Via Negativa—of feeling the basis of my work to be in the unknowing, in doubt, in being lost, in questions and not answers—and that recognition that personally the most important work I have done has come from not knowing what I was doing at the time I was doing it. This is the power of the time when you just jump off the cliff into the water and don’t worry if there are rocks just below the surface.”2 In fact the climax of Déserts is a scene in which the objects on a table in a room (its walls are grass green) fall in excruciatingly slow motion into a pool, followed by the table itself and the male figure who was sitting at it. His goatee and build suggest that he is a surrogate—almost a double—of Viola.

A similar kind of scene—a dissolution of objectivity in water’s primordial subjectivity, of the clear and distinct in the matrix of fluidity—occurs in work after work. In the opening image of The Passing, 1991, a night sky changes into a flawlessly smooth sheet of water, beneath whose surface a draped figure can be seen struggling not to drown. The implicitly suicidal leap into the water is suddenly reversed: the figure is lifted to the sky. A flooded landscape appears—a desert of water. A child walks through water, and the artist himself seems to be drowned underwater, along with a table.

The desert, however constituted—out of earth, water, fire, or air—is for Viola the objective correlative of the Via Negativa. Retreat to the desert has always been a mystical strategy, the means toward visionary merger with the divine: a strategy to achieve, through deprivation, a sense of the numinous, a higher consciousness of the holiness of being. The desert experience is in fact the very model of magic, media as well as mystical. Viola offers an abundance of both.

Viola’s desert magically becomes swiftly moving water, just as, in other works, still, crystal-clear water shatters into miragelike fragments of violent desert. Miraculous transformations are second nature in Viola’s elemental nature: desert and water are interchangeable, and so, in many works, are fire and air. The elements merge in an alchemic abyss: the alembic of the camera, handheld and therefore personal, motivated—dramatically moved—by eccentric impulsivity and curiosity. The camera is the instrument of Viola’s salvation, the means by which he makes something esthetically and mystically positive out of the desert experience.

Mysticism begins, Gershom Scholem has written, with recognition “of an abyss which can never be bridged.”3 For what Scholem calls classical religion, only the voice can cross the abyss between human reality and divine reality, and the voice is not exactly a permanent bridge. But we are beyond such religion today—only the mystic’s vision, a personal expression of “romantic” religion, can cross the abyss. This is what Viola’s imagistic, voiceless, nonverbal mysticism does. His bridge of images is even shakier and less solid than the bridge of the voice; indeed it replicates the abyss, manifesting an almost constant sensation of falling, a lack of sure footing and orientation. The presence of the abyss reflects the catastrophe of separation from divine reality, and Viola’s visual abyss is loaded with catastrophes big and little—cosmic and mundane negative experiences. But catastrophe is also the way to reunion with divine reality: one must turn to catastrophe to re-create what catastrophe has destroyed.

Viola’s videos are abyssal alembics: all kinds of images are chaotically thrown together, tumbling abstractly in their incommensurateness yet bound by their common character of catastrophe. Seeming like fragments of one long exposure, one temporally extended image, they come together in the flow of the video. At certain erratic but peculiarly predestined-seeming moments the images dissolve, leaving blank spots of sheer invisibility. There is movement as such—a sense of flow, a texture of motion—and that is (almost) all. These imageless voids constitute literally iconoclastic moments in which there is literally nothing to see, no objects to pace and define seeing, only the silent but felt momentum of the moving camera. They are at once the most catastrophic and consummate (negative and positive) moments in Déserts. It is as though the whole video were straining to realize them—to realize invisibility.

For Viola, these moments are traces of the Deus absconditus, the absent God. They are the moments in which the abyss spontaneously generates God, indeed changes into God: in the abyss of images one is no longer separated from God (a test of one’s faith), one is selflessly immersed in divine reality. The blank blind spot is one’s own selflessness, as well as God’s. Initially experienced as a mysterious abyss of images, God becomes the being beyond imagining—the being that can only be imagined as unimaginable.

Such mutant moments of unimaginability—of visual silence, as it were—are the divine moments toward which Viola’s relentless flux of images tends. They signal that this is a creative as well as a catastrophic flux. They signal that what Scholem called the “old unity,” which was “destroyed,” has been “pieced together.” It survives, if only as a blurred patchwork. The “fragments broken by . . . cataclysm”—the fragments that indicate cataclysm, that represent “the abysmal multiplicity of things”—have come together “on a new plane” of the “soul,” where “mythology” and “revelation” meet. The soul has made its slippery “path . . . to the experience of Divine Reality, now conceived as primordial unity of all things.”4 It is as though Viola were trying to master the trauma of this experience by symbolizing and recapitulating it in a variety of esthetic forms and fantasies. He refers often to the experience of near drowning, which he has made into something profound. In fact Viola did nearly drown as a boy; the experience may have been what made him a visually sophisticated seer. He has spent his life studying it and its subtle transformative effect on his psyche.

In Migration, 1976, Viola’s reflection appears first in a bowl of water and then in a drop of water. It is as though these small bodies of water were enough to drown him; he has transposed his boyhood smallness to them. In The Space between the Teeth, also 1976, the flow of images is deadened in a black and white still before falling backward into a lake, whose waves wash over and in effect drown it. It is as though the imagery had returned to the medium from which it emerged, the fluidity of the video medium itself making it as elemental as water, and indeed it flows as “naturally” as water. This is almost explicit in Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat), 1979. It is a portrait of a desert in which a mirage coagulates like a cloud out of droplets of heat and water, reflecting the “process” of the video medium. In The Reflecting Pool, 1977–79, a surface of water mirrors a man (implicitly Viola), then becomes impenetrable and inscrutable. The figure disappears into a point of iridescent light, which itself disappears before the man unexpectedly rises up out of the water—returns from mystical nothingness. A few drops of water briefly obscure the picture, until the dark, smooth surface of the water again becomes obscure.

In Hatsu Yume (First Dream), 1981, we are in a Japanese city, going with the current of light as it moves toward the darkness of night. Something similar occurs in Ancient of Days, 1979–81, on a Tokyo street, where a crowd and a large electronic sign seem a chaotic, amorphous flow, yet, like water, with a peculiar rhythm giving them inner form. In I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, 1986, the camera moves underwater toward the source of some kind of initiationlike music, finally approaching the watery cave in which the ceremony seems to be occurring. In The Sleepers, 1992, seven 55-gallon metal barrels are filled to the brim with water; at the bottom of each is a video monitor. In Nantes Triptych, also 1992, the central monitor of three video screens shows a human figure under water that is alternately turbulent and quietly undulating. Water’s uncanniness—by reason of the contrast immanent in it between manifest formlessness and covert, latent form (the result of the invisible current that in-forms it, indeed, that is inseparable from its constant movement)—is always Viola’s model. Indeed he rarely shows himself without water: we often see him, a hermit meditating in a cell, with a glass of water beside him. The pouring of a glass of water and its seemingly accidental upsetting are major events in Déserts.

Catastrophe is always present in Viola’s work, explicitly in the nightmarish Anthem, 1983. Oil pumps become predatory birds, factories become fire-breathing dragons. In an operating room we watch a life being destroyed rather than saved: vital organs are removed from an apparently still living body, a beating heart is cut open, eyes are cut up, other eyes are sewn shut. Finally the prolonged scream of a young girl—Viola’s alter ego, vulnerable and helpless—punctuates the video, like a stream of consciousness being erased. It is her nightmare, and she cannot awake from it.

A comment on technological society is no doubt implicit in Anthem, but it is the agony of the girl, socially drowning, that is the real subject matter. Society has traumatized her. In Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, 1982, Viola deals with a man whose brain was damaged in an accident, traumatizing him; both he and the young girl seem to have gained insight into being through the shock to their being, thus changing the meaning, even the substance, of their traumatic experience. By putting us in their situation, as Viola repeatedly does—sometimes he surrounds us with video screens, traumatizing us with images and sound (the video becomes our own REM dream)—Viola invites us to identify with them (as he did with Varese), and thus to acknowledge our own traumatic experience of the material world. Such experience is the beginning of mystical awareness and thus of spiritual transformation. In Passing, the trauma of Viola’s mother’s death and the near simultaneous birth of his child suggest the magic of theodicy, making life out of death—God’s ultimate mystical-miraculous achievement.

Mysticism always begins in suffering—in the dark night of the soul, and in a sense of the traumatic absurdity and horror of the world, from which we retreat into the desert of ourselves, often objectified as a desert of isolation and loneliness. The modern soul no doubt has more than enough reason to despair—to grow dark; and many see television and its technology as a part of our world’s absurdity, a technique equivalent to brainwashing. The triumph of Viola’s art is that he uses this medium to wash the wretched world out of our brains, showing us the light within our own traumatic darkness. It is no mean feat to make an art technically sophisticated yet subtly humane and compassionate, turning an instrument of instrumental reason to the soul’s cure.

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York, Stony Brook, and A. D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. His next book will be called Idiosyncratic Identities: Art at the End of the Avant-Garde, to be published by Cambridge University Press next year.


1. I talked to Bill Viola on 10 February 1995, on the occasion of the opening of Déserts at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

2. Viola, quoted in Jorg Zutter, “Interview with Bill Viola,” Bill Viola: Unseen Images, exhibition catalogue (Düsseldorf: Kunsthalle, 1993), p. 104.

3. Gershom G. Scholem, Modern Trends in Jewish Mysticism, London: Thames & Hudson, 1955, p. 8.

4. Ibid.