Naissance à rebours
October 25, 2017 - March 11, 2018
DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art
451 & 465, St-Jean Street Montréal, Québec H2Y 2R5
By JAMES D. CAMPBELL, FEB. 2018
As part of its 10th anniversary celebration, DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art presented a powerfully moving and cohesive solo exhibition of Bill Viola, fittingly entitled Naissance à rebours.
Viola has long been recognized as a visionary pilgrim in video art and remains for many its reigning avatar. With a career spanning almost 50 years, the artist is no stranger to Montreal. We first saw his work in November 1975 at Véhicule Gallery with Original Thought, a superb video installation involving light reflected on water then projected onto the wall. Even then, its theme was prophetic for all his later work: the unity of all things. He was the subject of a welcome retrospective at the Musée d'art contemporain.in 1993 which included what is no doubt still one of the strongest works by a video artist in the history of the discipline: Slowly Turning Narrative (1992). In 2001, his work The Sleepers (1992) appeared in "Artcité” at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal, and again in 2017 in its "State of the World: Pictures for an Exhibition," Making its Canadian debut now is his most recent major installation, Inverted Birth (2014), one that compares very favourably with Slowly Turning Narrative.
Inverted Birth is a monumental projection of a man who stands alone, withstanding a proverbial onslaught, perhaps caught live in the midst of a healing ceremony. Of this latest work, Bill Viola writes, "a man stands in the darkness, drenched in black fluid, the sound of drips punctuating the hollow sound of an empty space. Gradually the fluid begins to rise and as the movement escalates, the flow upward becomes a roaring deluge. The dark despair of black turns to fear as the liquid changes to red but the man remains strong. With the flow of white liquid comes relief and nurturing, followed by the purification of cleansing water. Finally, a soft mist brings acceptance, awakening, and birth. The fluids represent the essence of human life: earth, blood, milk, water, and air, and the life cycle from birth to death, here inverted into a transformation from darkness to light."
The work treats five stages of awakening through a staggered cascading sequence of violent transformations that mark telling stages in his experience and our existence: the life, death, birth, and rebirth cycle. “Birth is not a beginning, death is not an end,” as Viola has remarked, quoting from the Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu (370–287 BC). The liminal states in between are suggested with beautifully understated theatricality here.
Most all of Viola's earlier work referenced the solitary subject, and his work has always had an existential core. Estranged from nature, caught up in technics, cast down by fate, necessity, circumstance, the self can only undergo catharsis and bear witness after confronting itself in time. Viola investigates the very nature of our existence on the threshold, the so-called ‘breach wall’ in seeing, the cusp of being. The vertical depth of Inverted Birth with its dilation on genesis, definition, deliverance, defenestration (or exfoliation) makes a powerful impact.
Inverted Birth is only the latest in a long series of works that depict his protagonists in extreme situations, and all those works have great spiritual resonance. Under water or on fire, ascending and descending, his subjects take on the role of an Everyperson and he relentlessly cuts to the chase through a wide swathe of presuppositions about nature, culture and embodiment in the world and grounds us in existential meanings that are continually engaging as food for thought. Viola reminds us that we do not have to own the truth in order to bear effective witness to it, and his is an unfailingly testimonial stance – and practice.
DHC/ART also brought together four flat panel video works, The Return (2007), Ancestors (2012), Walking on the Edge (2012), and The Encounter (2012), as well as the projection work Ascension (2000).
In The Return (2007), a sort of embodied ghost story for adults, the water is interpretable as the water of life; a veil that the video’s female protagonist passes through in order to return to the world of the living, as it were, from a dark hereafter. The water revivifies her, puts chromatic flesh back on her bones as she comes forward, her vitrified silhouette redeemed as she re-enters time. Her grisaille dress becomes a carmine dress again, and her face grows increasingly expressive. It is as though she has come back across the limit threshold to bear witness. When she turns her back on us, it is not with regret but with ingrained moral courage, purpose and perhaps resignation. As she passes once more through the water she becomes ash-laden once again, losing definition, assuming the guise of a shroud. The Return is a very moving testimonial in its own right, reminding us of W. B. Yeats’s lines “Cast a cold eye/On life, on death/Horseman, pass by.”
In The Encounter (2012), we witness two women who seem embarked on very different journeys who eventually meet as they walk relentlessly forward and, by a strange unspoken osmosis, the younger of the two seems to receive knowledge from the elder – perhaps the lessons learned from cumulative experiences in the world, perhaps a spiritual gift of avowal and overcoming, of wisdom and strength.
In Ancestors (2012), a mother and son make their way through a harsh desert environment at the height of summer. As they traverse the punishing hot sand, a dust storm swallows them up. As they emerge from it, they seem transformed: perhaps strengthened, imbued with new willpower and resolve, as though they have found in each other the power to withstand the slings and arrows of a fortune more often outrageous than not; in effect, to triumph over adversity, and live again.
In Walking on the Edge (2012), two men appear in the desert at opposite ends of the screen and walk towards us on paths that lead them ever closer to one another until they walk side by side and then cross paths. This work speaks eloquently to the politics of separation. It is a beautiful tone poem about the innately complex and fraught relation between two men, perhaps father and son, as they make their respective passages through life.
In Ascension (2000), the phenomenal quiet of an aquatic environment is violently sundered from our perspective under the surface when a fully clothed man unexpectedly crashes into the water, sinking slowly, inexorably into the depths, perhaps unconscious or dead. At a certain point, his body suspends its descent and then begins to rise again towards the surface, buoyed up by beams of brilliant blue light, where perhaps the last air is expelled from his lungs and he once again descends, disappearing into the depths.
These video and projection works invoke rites of passage, liminal states, and transformative journeys. They never preach. They simply posit. They simply are. It is difficult not to see the artist Bill Viola as someone who knows a lot about enlightenment. Indeed, the emotional impact of these works is such that it is we, his viewers, who are transformed.
Organized in collaboration with Kira Perov and the Bill Viola Studio, this exhibition gave Montreal a further immersion in both Viola’s work and the uniquely sophisticated persona of its author, both of which seem to echo Robert A. F. Thurman’s words: “To become enlightened is not just to slip into some disconnected euphoria, an oceanic feeling of mystic oneness apart from ordinary reality. It is not even to come up with a solution, a sort of formula to control reality. Rather, it is an experience of release from all compulsions and sufferings, combined with a precise awareness of any relevant subject of knowledge. Having attained enlightenment one knows everything that matters, and the precise nature of all that is.” WM
1. See Robert Thurman, Inner Revolution (New York, Riverhead, 1999).
Bill Viola will also open with a new show at James Cohan Gallery in New York City.
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James D. Campbell is a curator and writer on art based in Montreal. The author of over 150 books and catalogues on art, he contributes essays and reviews to Frieze, Border Crossings and other publications.