Light, then … time: Bill Viola at SFMOMA

billviola1 copy
Bill Viola at SFMOMA

Just minutes after leaving the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art survey of video art by the masterful Bill Viola, I found myself inside that huge new Sony Metreon monstrosity walling off one end of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There, in the depths of a crass “futuristic” shopping mall/movie palace, countless video-display images and techno beeps and roars assaulted me as kids played oversized, oversexed video games overdone with gaudy colors and endless bloodlust. I couldn’t wait to flee before I forgot how wonderful video art can be.

The video masterpieces I experienced at the Bill Viola exhibit were inspired not by money, but by soul. The16 installations incorporated into an ingeniously designed room-to-room journey of sight and sound utilize imagery, light, darkness, space, time, distortion, the shock of the unexpected, ambient sounds, hypnotic motion, dub mixes, and an endless variety of explosions and continuous roars.

While video games engage minds, they leave bodies inert. Not so the Bill Viola exhibit, in which the body responds to the artist’s constructions by speeding up, slowing down, turning around, stopping, walking slowly forward toward looming objects, and retreating down narrow passageways from which emanate eerie noises and odd flashing lights. No drugs are required to appreciate this psychedelia. It’s the ultimate in light-and-sound architecture, a virtual passageway through which minds can be transported to many other realities.

My favorite stop came at “The Reflecting Pool” (1977-79), a 7-minute videotape in which a man emerges from a forest to stand naked before a rustic garden pond. Slowly, the pool comes to life, but seemingly occupies a different space and time than all around it. Dimensions become blurred, and what is real and what is reflection rely on the imagination.

What distinguishes Viola’s work from less imaginative video art is the spirit that enlivens it. Viola has drawn inspiration from Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, the physics of optics and the mechanisms of perception, Sufi poetry, and the free verse of Walt Whitman. His work is textured, neither muscle-bound nor insipid, but alternately muscular and brainy. In his range of imagination and technique, Viola demonstrates what video-art can be, while putting commercial video art to shame.

“Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey,” was co-curated by David A. Ross and Peter Sellars, ran through September 12, 1999 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. 

For a related story, see “SFMOMA Party Blasts Off.”