Archive for the ‘Bill Viola’ Tag

Clinging to the raft….

Today I went to see ‘The Raft’, a video work by Bill Viola which is on display at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) until 20 February.

I’ve written about Viola’s work on this blog before, when I saw ‘Ocean without a shore’ at the National Gallery of Victoria. That was in February 2009, and Victoria had just experienced its worst ever bushfires, and watching an artwork which displayed the boundary between the living and the dead as a metaphorical wall of water seemed inexpressibly sad and melancholic.

Two years on, and Australia is experiencing floods. As many readers of this blog will be well aware, Queensland has been deluged with rain, with many parts of the state still under water after several weeks. Victoria too has been flooded in its northern, rural reaches; and on Friday night, the tail end of a tropical cyclone in Queensland meant that parts of Melbourne were awash with water. Suddenly, ‘so much water, so close to home’, as the Paul Kelly song would put it.

Some of the floods that occurred in the last few weeks were flash floods: sudden onslaughts of water that appear out of nowhere, sweeping cars, street signs, and even houses with them. In parts of Queensland, people lost their lives, washed away by flash floods.

Just as I couldn’t help but think about the bushfires when I saw Viola’s work ‘Ocean without a shore’ two years ago, today I was unable to watch ‘The Raft’ without thinking about those devastating floods.

‘The Raft’ (2004) echoes the famous work by Théodore Géricault, The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819).

It depicts the after-effects of the sinking of a frigate, the Méduse, which ran aground in 1816. Over 140 people clung to an inexpertly constructed raft; only 15 were still alive when rescue arrived.

The image was later used by the Irish band The Pogues as the cover for their album, ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, with band members superimposed upon the raft with the survivors:

Viola provides us with a metaphorical raft, rather than any kind of actual vessel adrift on the high seas. Instead, the work, which is a video/sound installation lasting 10.33minutes, begins with a group of people standing in an anonymous space. It is, no doubt, the artist’s studio, but the figures act as if they are waiting for a bus, or a train, and soon that is how we look at them – they are a group of strangers, on the whole, engaged in the business of waiting, going about their everyday lives. Some of the group know each other: a couple here and there, but on the whole these are disconnected strangers. There are around 14 individuals when the work begins; gradually others arrive, and weave their way through the throng, to take up their own position in which to wait. As with all Viola’s work, the film is slowed down considerably, so that movements are heightened and rendered anti-naturalistic. The soundtrack is an indistinct blur of everyday sounds.

Here is an abridged version of the work, which begins around this point, skipping the several minutes beforehand in which the individuals are simply passing time, waiting:

After a few minutes, to the left of the screen, water appears, flowing over the ground. The figures on the left look down and it and around, but suddenly a blast of water explodes forcefully over the figures, not only drenching them but actually bowling some of them over: it is as though a water cannon has been unleashed upon them. At the same time, a similar jet of water begins from the right hand side, so that the figures are buffeted from all sides.

People drop, in painfully slow motion, to their knees, attempting to brace themselves against the force of the water; some lie prone and motionless; others stagger around, blindly, trying to escape the jets. Splayed hands are raised in the vain effort to deflect the spray. On the soundtrack is a deafening roar, industrial, indecipherable. As with all of Viola’s work, the lighting is so cleverly done that each frame resembles a still painting; and in particular, of course, many parts of this work evokes Géricault’s own raft, and the possibilities of survival in the midst of devastation. I found myself sitting with open mouth, astonished at the images, unable to imagine (or perhaps only too able to imagine, thanks to the viscerality of the work) the suffering of the body in the face of so much liquid force.

After several minutes, the force of the water begins to subside, until it gradually ebbs away. Some of the figures seem frozen in shock, their faces contorted and agonised. One woman shakes out her hair, which scatters drops of water in jewelled arcs. Two strangers discover that they are holding each other up. One boy reaches down to assist an elderly woman who has been lying motionless face down on the ground. Their disparateness is gone forever; these disconnected individuals are utterly joined together: the trauma of the event has forged a community.

It’s all too easy to see this as a ready parable for the aftermath of disaster, and for the strength of community evidenced in flood-affected areas, and I’m slightly hesitant to give in to that reading. I would rather read the work as being about randomness. The individuals are simply going about their lives when the water arrives. (‘Water’ could be any disaster: fire, illness, crime, terrorism, bereavement…) There is no reason for it; it simply comes. There is no rationality to their reactions; once the water has arrived, they simply move about as they must. And once it has gone, there is no explanation for how or why they end up in the positions they do. They are just there. Such is the nature of disaster. It comes without warning; it has no reasons. Survival is random, as is death.

All of Viola’s individuals are still alive after the water recedes: the raft saves them. The shipwrecked crew of the Méduse were not so lucky: over 130 of them died on their raft. The mere presence of a raft is no guarantee; the mere fact of survivorship does not generate community. And if communities are to be built, I would like us not to have to depend on disaster as the foundation for them.

Bill Viola: ‘Ocean without a shore’.

These last few weeks in Victoria have been all about heat, fire and drought, and so there’s a certain aptness in writing about an artist whose works often make use of water. Bill Viola is an American artist whose work, Ocean without a shore, has recently been purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria. It has been installed for a number of weeks, and I finally managed to get to see it. As with the other times I have seen Viola’s work, I was completely awestruck by it.

The work was originally made for the Venice Biennale, where it was installed in a small chapel. Each of its three screens took the place of altar pieces within the chapel, and the setting must have generated an amazing atmosphere in which to view this work. Here’s  a short film about the installation of the work in Venice:

The NGV installation retains a sense of the work’s engagement with the sacred and the uncanny by placing it within a very small, darkened room. The spectator sits on a low bench just inside the room, a low bench reminiscent of a church pew. Each screen is placed on one of the three walls, in a manner very similar to the Venice installation. Unlike a standard chapel altar piece, however, the images within the screens are moving.

Each screen shows the same scenario, performed by a different person. A blurry figure stands at a distance from ‘us’, or, from the ‘front’ of the image, if the screen constitutes some imaginary ‘front’. These images strongly evoke depth of field – the figures start in the distance, walk forwards, halt, look around, turn, then walk away. When they have each returned to their starting point, each one is succeeded by a new figure (although this moment of succession is never possible to see on screen – I found myself always either distracted by the other screens or simply unable to make out the exact moment of transition due to the fuzziness of the figure once it has receded into the depth of the screen).

The figures do not move in synch with each other; they come and go in series, sometimes in the same order (left panel, then centre panel, then right panel), sometimes not (left panel, then right panel, oh, then left panel again, then centre panel, then right panel… and so on). The speed of the figures is slow: they are in fact shown in slow-motion, which makes their movements seem both ponderous and tentative, and which adds to the ominous tone of the piece.

And what else is happening as each figure makes this slow walk forward and back? There is, as with all Viola’s work, a great deal more going on, consisting mainly in the thick texture of the artwork itself. As each figure draws near to ‘us’, they pass through a wall of water. Digital effects mean that we do not see the water, except as after-effects – droplets, spray, sprinkles – after each figure passes through it. But what we really are being invited to look at is the transformative capacity of the water: the individuals are of course drenched by the water, so that previously frizzy hair lies flat, or a light coloured shirt is soaked dark.

But more than this, passing through the water wall plunges the figures into rich, deep colour and sharp focus. No longer grey and blurry, they seem fully present as they stand and look around, sometimes seeming even to gaze directly at the viewer. They exhibit no pleasure or joy, however; their moments are still solemn and hesitant, and after a short time, each figure turns and walks back through the invisible water (which we still see only in its after-drops) and back into black and white indistinction.

While this takes place, we hear a dull continuous, almost industrial thrumming sound, which crescendos to a cascade of noise whenever a figure approaches and moves through the water wall. Here’s a short clip which gives a sense of what this looks and sounds like:


Viola is, as many of his other works will confirm, fascinated by the anunciatory and transfiguring power of water. A number of years ago, I had the experience of seeing one of his works, Five Angels for the Millenium, at the Tate Modern in London. Here’s a video clip  which gives an idea of what this work is like – you have to persist till the end for the extraordinary pleasure of the last few seconds:

That work was installed in an enormous, extremely dark room; five gigantic screens were installed on the walls, each showing a single figure plunging into and out of water in extremely slow motion. For the viewer the experience was utterly disorienting: I found my gaze compelled by the screens, and the surrounding darkness meant that I often did not see other spectators on the periphery of my visual field, so that I would bump into people while moving around to view the screens. Thus, just as the figures in the work were plunged into dark water, so the spectator was temporarily immersed in darkness: ‘all at sea’, as if moving through an unlit ocean.

In the NGV piece, although water plays a large part (as you can tell, both from my description and from the title of the work), we are not being invited to feel any such consonance or connection with the figures depicted, or to measure our experience in comparison with theirs.

On the contrary, the invisible wall of water marks a threshold – between the worlds of the living and the dead. For Viola, the figures in each panel are ghosts. The work makes literal the archaic term for a ghost: shade. Faintly visible in blurry grey tones they come towards us – the living – and attempt to press themselves into our world, but are always, after each brief return, forced to withdraw, to fade once more into the shadows where they belong.

The triangulation of the three screens, with each successive apparition gazing at the spectator, provides a melancholic sense of a threshold that cannot be surpassed, of the limits of life for us all, and of the irrevocable rupture that death brings about. It’s an artwork of immense power, and, in the immediate aftermath of the devastation brought by bushfires in Victoria, it’s an artwork that seems made for this sad time.

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