Bill Viola

The theme of this exhibition of Bill Viola’s work was nothing less than birth and death. Entitled “Unseen Images,” it brought together seven installations. The central work was Nantes Triptych (all works 1992), in which he projected images of the slow birth of his child, his dying mother, and lastly of himself under water. In order to understand the significance of these images of birth and death, the other installations must be considered.

Heaven and Earth and The Sleepers can also be understood as variations on his fundamental theme. In the former, two black and white monitors hung vertically. The one placed above the other projected a close-up of his dying mother, the lower one the new-born child. He utilized a similar juxtaposition in Threshold: on the outside the news was broadcast on an electronic readout, but through the narrow entrance in a dark room larger-than-life figures were projected onto the wall from which the sound of breathing resounded. The hectic pace of everyday life was juxtaposed with the quiet intimacy of the sleeping figures. In the next room, Slowly Turning Narrative brought out the polarity of the socio-political and the private realms even more strongly. In a dark room a revolving projection screen had a reflective surface on one side that distorted the images projected on it and reflected the viewer, images which could be clearly identified on the nonreflective side of the screen, while a voice mumbled about various states of being and actions.

Viola has chosen a banal symbolic language—perhaps too clearly used in the central work—in all these installations. Birth and death are the collective givens, and to this basic juxtaposition he adds the categories of the public and private from the autobiographical element to the visual translation of media information and unknown (dream) worlds, the static and the dynamic, the individual and society, biological and technical processes. To these fundamental qualities that structure our everyday life, Viola assigns images that stem from well-known religious patterns, namely the parable. This leads in the end to “Unseen Images” remaining unseen, for the images are translated into words. In Slowly Turning Narrative this is most clearly the case. But the attempt to engage the viewer in the work fails in the recordings, and the installation becomes an endless dialogue with itself. Designed to elicit the viewer’s physical participation, the exhibition, rather than surprising the viewer with such grand themes of birth and death, simply offered an unending array of images.

Sabine B. Vogel

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.