Bill Viola, Observance, 2002, HD video, color, silent, 10 minutes 14 seconds.

Bill Viola, Observance, 2002, HD video, color, silent, 10 minutes 14 seconds.

Bill Viola

In his eponymous museum, Albert C. Barnes (1872–1951) divided his impressive collection into small “ensembles,” juxtaposing paintings, sculptures, and decorative objects without regard for chronology or geography: a modern abstraction beside pages from a medieval Book of Hours, an African ceremonial ax suspended above a European rendering of Christ carrying the cross. As curator John G. Hanhardt writes in the catalogue for “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola,” Barnes’s eclecticism made his museum the ideal site for this Bill Viola exhibition—the first of its size in Philadelphia, assembling eight videos and multimedia installations dating from 1976 through 2009. Like Barnes, Viola uses art to discover transcultural and transtemporal resonances, and the works on view represented a grab bag of pictorial, philosophical, and religious referents. Consider, for instance, Viola’s decision to name a three-channel projection of grainy black-and-white film Pneuma, 1994/2009, after the Greek word for “soul,” “breath,” or “life force”—a nod to the ancients that imbued the otherwise insubstantial-seeming footage with an ethereal pulse. Or take the title of the video that played in an adjacent room, Ascension, 2000, which gives its subject (a man diving into the water with outstretched arms) a messianic aspect.

Although the show was, as its title suggested, anchored by Viola’s 1986 opus I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, three of four more recent video works displayed on elongated flat-screen televisions in the first gallery stood out most for their relationships to the Barnes’s permanent collection. Resembling animated paintings, literal motion pictures, the works populate scenes of art-historical patina with modern figures, drawing connections between disparate places and times. The Greeting, 1995, updates Jacopo da Pontormo’s Visitation, 1528–29, a painting of the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth announcing their pregnancies on a sixteenth-century Florentine street. In Viola’s version, three women (tourists in Italy, perhaps) meet on a road. Their short greeting is slowed down to last more than ten minutes, giving it a monumentality and mystery that approaches Visitation’s. Is this a casual encounter or a divine miracle? Or is Viola suggesting that all interactions—even unremarkable ones—are in some sense sacral? A similar blurring of the sacred and the mundane is evident in the multiscreen Catherine’s Room, 2001, a reimagining of Andrea di Bartolo’s Catherine of Siena with Four Blessed Dominicans, ca. 1394–98, an altarpiece cycle of the holy woman at her daily prayers. In Viola’s rendition, the central subject is less overtly Catholic than Bartolo’s, though she, too, seems to lead a life of solitude and solemnity, beholden to the rhythms of nature: We watch her rise, read, write, meditate, and sleep in a sparsely furnished room. A window behind her reveals the slow passage of hour and season, the waxing and waning of light, and the bloom and decay of flowers on a visible tree branch.

The last of these three pieces is the least straightforward in its source: Observance, 2002, depicts what seems to be a graveside procession from the perspective of the deceased, though the object of concern is never shown. Mourners pause in the video’s foreground, gazing at something just below the camera with downturned mouths and hollow, red-ringed eyes, their expressions appearing both genuine and clichéd, individual yet generic. The piece offers a reminder that certain visual markers are so essential and so human as to be expressed in some variant by all of us. A belief in shared experience, universal feeling, and the human capacity for empathy is arguably naive. But Viola, like Barnes, appears to be an optimist. It is easy to imagine this video forming the center of its own ensemble, flanked by other renderings of grief, each unique but awash in one emotional current.