Common to the unfolding of Bill Viola’s life like many who were alive between 1986 and 1994 found it to be a time of global change, revolutionary ideas as humanity perpetual needed to re-define itself. In this thread of his existence, we witnessed catastrophes such as nuclear reactor disasters in Russia, the United States, and Japan, the student uprising for democracy in Tiananmen Square resulting in the deaths of thousands, and in the art world thieves snatched “Scream,” one of Edward Munch’s most famous paintings from a gallery in Oslo, Norway. Viola’s life was to play out in events just as tragic, insightful, and provocative. One way to read the fabric of Bill Viola’s quest for spiritual awareness is to plunge deeply into his very prolific resume of art installations. Rather than topically examining a variety of his works, this writer is torn between considering the social relevancy of his, “I do not know what it is I am like,“(1986) or exploring the borders of human perception and consciousness concepts of, “Heaven and Earth” (1992).
Viola’s offering to the world, “Heaven and Earth” (1992), is a column made of wood that extends from the floor to a ceiling, estranged by only a gap of mere inches. In this ephemeral space, the uncovered CRT tubes of two video monitors containing black and white images are placed facing each other while remaining separate. The higher monitor reveals an image of an elderly woman (Viola’s mother) in the death process, while the monitor below bears the face of a newborn life (his son), only hours old. The housing of these silent images is within a very small room. The likeness of each image projects into the opposing screen, thus the images of the birth and death process can be seen through the surface of the other, not unlike the Chinese Yin and Yang Ba-gua philosophy that states that opposite forces both dispel and attract while containing some aspects of its compliment.
As one attempts to investigate what makes an artist delve for reasons for being, it becomes clear that the living textile of life rarely exposes its simple secrets to the topical wanderer, as the viewer’s thoughts becomes the object itself. To find these concepts of life is to understand the very edges of morality that manifest themselves as reasons for being. What is clear in Viola’s work is that he seeks to go as deep as he can, he states, “into the act of being alive.”
In college as Viola was failing his advertising class, a friend mentioned a professor who had created a program called “Experimental Studios.” From his introduction with the new and unorthodox teacher, Professor Jack Nelson, Viola knew he was ‘home.’ From this place, he would begin to formulate his current and continual use of spiritual iconography in his interpretations of human existence and the birth and death process in “Heaven and Earth,” and other works. These techniques underscore his interest in non-linear communication and the annihilation of subjectivity and protagonist. In “Heaven and Earth,” (1992) he trains the camera to critically focus on the newborn’s eyes and visually investigates the child as he studies his new environment making visceral connections by creating a dialogue with the light and itself. The baby attempts to create tools in order to read this new light, “and the information it contains,” states the artist.
These inward journeys into primordial imagery allow for separation of body and soul. Bill Viola’s work forces one to go deep inside to find out what is going on. He takes us from the body and social ego into another place. Without warning, one is using their eye as an open camera, as Viola states, by re-learning how to spiritually see. Viola mentions that newborns have, “eyes that can’t see, but know.”
In the past, humanity has arguably considered art as being at most three-dimensional. Bill Viola’s “Heaven and Earth” (1992) video installation among other of his installations, “uses the dimensional theory of time as an integral part of the medium, adding the welcome challenge of the complexity of a fourth dimension.” The very thought of the argument of whether time is a natural element conjures up a passage from Edwin A. Abbott’s 1952 “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions.” Abbott as the first-person sphere is expounding on his frustration in his inability in the novel to explain the concept of more than two dimensions to a conventional minded third-person square.
“Yet, at times, my spirit was too strong for me, and I gave vent to dangerous utterances. Already I was considered heterodox if not treasonable, and I was keenly alive to the danger of my position; nevertheless I could not at times refrain from bursting out into suspicious or half-seditious utterances, even among the highest Polygonal and Circular society.” In analyzing the artist’s thorough understanding of time as an element, a 1970s humorous television ad exemplifies the corporate mentality and desire to control everything on earth, including natural forces and elements. A major timepiece company ‘maxes out’ its credibility by professing that they alone discovered time. In a possible future critique of the human race by others, it may be said that we defined time by the human-socio elements, events and overly zealous remarks. This writer does not doubt that they will also refer to Bill Viola’s ‘Heaven’ as a template for understanding the ephemeral places that mark these all too human events.
Because of the breadth and depth of Viola’s visual study of the birth and death process in ‘Heaven,’ he has offered the viewer multiple points of departure for introspect to the deepest and most profound impetus of the reason for being. One constant concept in his work is the feminine, specifically the mother/child relationship, and the maternal aspects of femininity, in all life. Along with, “the fear of mortality, nonbeing, and decay,’ ‘death plays a central role in our emotions.” At the moment of passing of someone’s mother, the dynamics of many communities change. The death of anyone other carries its own solemn time of shock, regret, and loss; however, a mother’s loss goes to and passes this place, to the very core of being, and life itself. One never realizes just how alone in the universe one is until their mother passes from this human corporeal existence.
The artist’s study of this spiritual and organic process has assisted many viewers in understanding how to reach this place of being an un-person, or as he stated in a previous videotaped interview, “from social perfection into self perfection.” As artists we circle the drain of this place we collectively go to tap into for the chaotic and visual impetuses of our collective visual voice. It is not surprising that along the way the signs up ahead read like Caution: deep spiritual valleys ahead, cause and effect for next n miles, no rest stops ahead, and ‘enlightened only use express lane.’ As someone who is interested in other forms of non-orthodox spirituality, this writer while keeping in context with the earlier stated Chinese Ba-gua philosophy, would like to focus on and tie together the remaining scientific fact being that for a life form to continue to exist it must contain some aspect of its compliment. This preset of science also shares a Buddhist predetermination that for every reality there exists a separate and opposite reality: Logic and the illogic sharing the same umbilical with existence.
Ultimately, in retrospect I am comforted by the simple current fact that all of humanity’s reason and logic seem to magically disintegrate as our math and theories approach the event horizon of a galactic singularity (black hole). In support of this ephemeral place that Bill Viola has unveiled for us just on the other side of humanity, this viewer realizes that the scientific fact remains that on some ‘level’ all life responds to human interaction and emotion. This writer would also not be surprised that a space that Bill Viola creates for us to go inward and contemplate our own relationships with his art, humanity and ourselves yet again on some other plane, would only be a gap of mere inches. In closing, this writer would like to ask the artist himself, Mr. Viola, what are the reasons for being?