Bill Viola in Melbourne



'The Artist Falls' Real Time Dec-Jan, 1998, p. 21

Saturday evening at RMIT’s Storey Hall. A capacity crowd awaits the revered video artist for his only public appearance in Australia. A late start, and successive introductions of introducers, heightens our expectations.

When Bill Viola finally makes it to the lectern, it takes just one sentence for our high hopes to go into tailspin. ‘Okayee, hello, it’s great to be here!’ Oh, dear. Enthusiasm doesn’t register well with a Melbourne audience. Rather, we prefer a cool, understated approach; it grants us a little more space for thought. Audience participation is our principle phobia.

This is unfortunate, as Viola proceeded to deliver a most generous lecture about the profound concerns that underlie his art. But all I could hear were contradictions—the three most serious of which I list below. Anyone more positively disposed is welcome to read a coherent artistic project between the lines.

The first contradiction concerned technology. Viola’s talk began with the miraculous advance of the camera in our time. Viola’s way of telling this story was to make dramatic comparisons: the first video recorders cost $200,000 and were as big as a fridge, but today…. And thanks to portable video cameras, artists are now able to give expression to their creativity that is relevant to our time. He sounded more like a sales pitch.

At the same time as eulogising technology, Viola pressed home the human dimension. According to Viola, media such as television accelerate time to a point where they leave the orbit of human concerns. Yet the progress that Viola derides is the very same force that provides artists with their means of existence in the modern era.

This contradiction housed a deeper problem in Viola’s argument. Viola’s critique of contemporary culture was based on a fundamentalist belief in the body as the true measure of ‘absolute time and space’. Alluding to authors such as Arnheim, he claimed that architecture was now beginning to recognise that its basic tenets can be derived, not from art history, but from an understanding of the human body. Likewise, Viola could base his own work on an understanding of the universal human experience of time.

The anthropocentricism of this reduction is nothing surprising. Much American popular culture is about uncovering the human presence ‘out there’—reducing the strange to the familiar. Viola boldly undermined his own humanism, however, by claiming the necessity for a ‘dark place’, where secrets can occur. Such a space is where he chooses to situate his installations. Yet to hold with the existence of shadows, it is necessary to believe in something beyond human consciousness. I don’t mean ghosts or ETs. The structures of language that enable consciousness are enough of a mystery. The way video distorts images provides some means of representing that mediation. Yet driven to touch human emotions directly, Viola seems blind to the message of his medium.

The final contradiction dealt with progress. The rising intonation in Viola’s sentences was focused on the great leaps forward in human history. One of the greatest of these was the ascension of the artist, rising out of the ranks of mere ‘craftspeople’ to join the elites of the Renaissance, along with poets and military leaders. However, Viola ended his lecture on a contrary note. His last sentence evoked the Remanence theme of the visual arts program in which his installation is a part: ‘It’s all about what has been left behind’. It’s as though Viola wants to be both master and slave, technocrat and poet, Bill Gates and John Ruskin, American and Australian

Viola appears to be travelling along what Jacques Lacan described as the ‘American way’—the way of promising everything to everyone. Perhaps Melbourne audiences are more elitist. We need to see others fall by the wayside to be sure we are travelling in the right direction.

Still, there was much to celebrate. Our presence in such number acknowledged the captivating series of installations at the Old Magistrate’s Court that formed the Remanence program. The event itself was smoothly organised by the local art temples (CCP, 200GS, ACCA). Viola spoke for nearly two hours, answered questions at length, and showed Christian patience to the one heckler. His videos and aphorisms touched on profound dimensions of human experience. But it was a Reagan-esque world of homespun pathos, far from the today’s ‘hard edge’ culture of South Park, Nike and Viagra. Too sweet.

Sorry Bill. You needed to tell us where you are coming from, because it’s not where we are. At least, not yet.