Bill Viola

Taormina Arte 1987 / Parco Duca di Cesaro

In the dead of the night, the nonstop screening of Bill Viola’s video work stretched through the Mediterranean gardens of the municipal villa of Taormina. Viola’s technological eye is slow, sly, like those of an ensnared or frightened animal, yearning to take in the movements and the minimal transformations of everything around it, since there is meaning in every change, since even at its clearest, the image maintains unknown concatenations, mysterious ties, the mystery never entirely giving up its secrets. Just as architecture has done from the beginning of modern history, the technology of vision protects the subject from the threat posed by what is outside, and it does so with the pitiless acuteness of a slow scalpel that penetrates and splits. The world fraught with dangers and deceptions is a threat and a challenge; only the subject is accorded a semblance of stability, but its vision is uncertain, rendered opaque by the veils of culture and history, made acute and sharpened by technology, which is still the only possible measure and guide of the voyage. For Viola’s work is always concerned with voyage, but not just in strictly geographical terms, such as Tuscany, the Solomon Islands, Java, the Sahara, Japan, Fiji. “Voyage” here also encompasses the topography of the human spirit, in the sense intended by Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan—going toward nature, discovering the landscape, investigating our true relationship to a “place"—and therefore shows us the voyage as a form of self-discipline, as a transcending of differences in the quest for a cosmic reuniting that verges on Zen. Yet in Viola’s work the tension is always strong, the intensity never diffusing into the calm waters of contemplation.

In Viola’s Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat), 1979, which mixes the glowing phantasmagoria of mirages from the great salt lake in the Tunisian Sahara with the blinding images of the snowy expanses of Illinois and of Saskatchewan, the luminous and atmospheric density allows no peace and stirs up uncertainties. The eyes of the wild animals in the first part of I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, 1986, have the same apprehension as the person who is watching them—what distance separates us, at this point, from Giulio Paolini’s Giovane che guarda Lorenzo Lotto (Youth who looks at Lorenzo Lotto, 1968)? In fact, it is not the being of the personified subject, of the man, that is conveyed, but rather the movement and the internal, mechanical energy that constitute his being: the open-heart operation in Anthem, 1983. The capacity of his glance is not a permanent ability, but it does function, it too in mechanical fashion: the surgical operation on a human eye, again in Anthem. And so the subject is not defined through its actual being, but only through action, an action that is realized through the use of instruments that he has known how to create and known how to manage; while the rest, his very existence, is only a threatening discrepancy. The basic theme for all of Viola’s work is the solitude of the subject caught amid his technological prostheses and set against nature rather than an enemy, a nature that is different and distant, that progressively slips out of his control, like the target in Zeno’s paradox. If Gauguin frees himself, reuniting with All through a personal and artistic abandon generous enough to reconcile Western man with his own history, Viola, swimming through the same seas, still affirms Pascal’s example of man as “a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” taking a stance with the primacy of the subject and of his technological creatures.

The fact is that I have always preferred nomads to explorers, for it seems to me that travelers who care less about the results of the voyage than about the pleasures of the journey itself and the discoveries to be found within their own experience of it get a lot more out of the trip. Behind the nomad there is no protective force, only the memory of territories traversed or abandoned, perhaps forever, a memory that blurs with time. Behind the explorer there is always an apparatus of which he is a part, a distant apparatus that only indirectly participates in the experience, ready to seek in conquest and dominion what has come to be lacking in real and active knowledge at home, closed in the sterile and apparently secure tower of power.

Pier Luigi Tazzi

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.