Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait is a retrospective exhibition happening at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. The exhibition, on view until until May 2017, is celebrating a career of a pioneering video artist Bill Viola. The artist is recognized for his groundbreaking use of video technologies; and his works are known as poetic and performative, exploring the spiritual and perceptual side of human experience. Installed in multiple darker rooms, the show takes a viewer into a few episodes with the moving portraits. They are diverse, as one can imagine, and with each work the viewer’s experience becomes more fluid than staged or patterned. The works follow more circular way of reasoning than linear logic in storytelling.
The portrait of Bill Viola himself is titled Self Portrait, Submerged, 2013 (color high-definition video on LED display; stereo sound; 10:18 minutes). This portrait connects to an idea of mortality, the artist himself is appearing underwater. He looks as if being still with his eyes closed, and he does not seemingly breath. However, the movement becomes present with the unfolding effect of the water moving and altering the stage so to speak. For Viola, self-portrait is an evergoing reflective way to figure oneself out. Self-portrait is always a self-representation. As an artistic discovery it would be more like looking beyond a merely simple representation of oneself; attaching a subjective and changing viewpoint into a larger psychological canvas. We live in an era of selfies, so what more is there to discover, beyond a representation? Where does the normative cultural portrait end, and the new interpretation start?
In many of his works, Bill Viola summons the characters, young and old, male and female. These portraits are submerged underwater in a similar manner as his Self Portrait Submerged. A group of seven works are titled The Dreamers (2013). The portraits appear in a dark room as an installation of plasma displays mounted on the wall. They radiate very subtle visuality. There is water underneath of each character as their personal stage. It is the essence of the water that animates the otherwise still portraits to become sifting moments in space. The plasma videos are accompanied with a sound of a running water, which appears as a surrounding pulse for the portraits. These portraits take form as immersing works. In a way they are virtual, or the time is stopped as if there was an episode happening in another realm or in outer space. Each personality emerges as colors, when their fabric and hair covered bodies measure the dimensionality of the water. They contour and camouflouge barely within its surface.
A very different video setting is formed around a work titled The Reflecting Pool originating from 1977-79. In the video, a man is emerging from the forest standing in front of the pool. As he is leaping up in a sudden movement, jumping into the water, the image freezes. The person remains still in the center of the image; he is frozen whilst the water in the pool is slightly moving and changing. Another take on a theme of time passing. This time, the person is also immersed into the surroundings even more, and perhaps becoming one with the green lush with all his senses.
In a massive one screen video installation, a group of nineteen men and women from various ethnic backgrounds are struck by a great amount of water coming from a high pressure hose. The video called The Raft (May 2004), expresses different actions and reactions from the people to a seemingly catastrophic situation. Some are struggling physically showing hardship of survival with their bodies, the others remain more upright; yet all characters are touched and moved by the sudden force. The scene of the people reacting with their personal response, with their bodies moving, resisting, twisting, and falling, is effective. In the end, the water stops and leaves people with altered positions. The narrative brings into mind a natural force, which takes over peoples’ lives and controls their surroundings. An occurrence, which people cannot control. The video story opens a new stance to altered ways of being flooded, or being carried away with life occurrences.
Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait exhibition is a well curated retrospective to the artist’s forty year career. It includes several works investigating life cycles, and the process of aging. It touches a question of gender, and the metaphysical place for people in the world. His video works speak with the language and gesture of the body and face. They confront us with emotion and presence. Portraits are not always beautiful, or the characters are not always beautiful in a sense of how we measure our bodily image. But they echo beauty with their truthfulness and soul, which goes further than a normative cultural presentation.
Bill Viola started his discovery with a Portapak camera in the early 1970s. Since that time, the video has been his medium of expression.
More info about Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery
More info about the artist on James Cohan Gallery
Artist website: http://www.billviola.com/