Category Archives: Galleries

SFMOMA PARTY BLASTS OFF

billviola copy
Video Art by Bill Viola at SFMOMA

We may be a small city, but far from being a cultural backwater, we’re a city that knows how to party in high style. The latest evidence of this came last weekend at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a place where, against the traditions of stuffy museums everywhere, people were allowed to be part of the art.

The occasion was “RGB,” the electronic-music rave and laser/light show organized by Blasthaus and held Saturday night/Sunday morning, July 10/11 [1999], in conjunction with the spectacular exhibition of video art by Bill Viola. The decision to admit hundreds or possibly thousands of people into the building late at night to dance, drink, and partake of a world-class exhibit was inspired. The sheer spectacle of masses of people talking boistrously, laughing, gesticulating toward the hyperkinetic laser projections high over their heads, and leaping about ecstatically in the usually hushed confines of one of the city’s most prestigious art santcuaries was in itself a fine work of art. Boundaries and etiquette were smashed, while leaving the museum and its art very much intact – though forever changed in the perceptions of those who were there. No longer, for them, can the institution be perceived as aloof or at all indifferent. It became a place of the people, by the people, and for the people.

In the building’s atrium, perched like an emperor on the staircase landing, looking out over the crowd toward the lofty front entrance, DJ Mocean Worker of New York City worked a set of turntables with considerable finesse. He amped the place up, sending beats streaming out at a dizzying rate, energizing the crowd with the latest in techno-trance sounds. The volume was such that you could take a smoke across the street at Yerba Buena Center and still hear the party loud and clear.

In the Be-Calm Transit Lounge, the ambient/experimental music room adjacent to the main dance area, a surprising number of computer geeks sat at banks of terminals, Netsurfing the night away. What they discovered in their journeys, only they can say, but the sight of them was disconcerting. Only the hardest of hard-core Netheads could stay off the dance floor when the likes of DJs Darkhorse, Joe Rice, and Pimps of Atlantis were creating the grooviest of vibes.

But far more than the music, the dancing, the lasers, or anything else, the party’s highlight came in viewing the Viola video installations. People flowed from room to room in the self-guided video journey (a sort of self-propelled Disney ride), repeatedly plopping themselves down to partake of extraordinary imagery and sound effects. Clearly many of those sitting for long periods in front of various video terminals or giant screens were tripping. And the atmosphere was ecstatic. Installations became living rooms, and the people in them family. People sat among friends and strangers, arms clasped around knees, shoulders brushing, everyone bathed in the dim light of video displays. With each mind-tripping sound and image effect, a sort of communal rush ensued.

Truly, “RGB” set a new standard for parties, and created a whole new way of appreciating art. The SFMOMA will never be quite the same, and that bodes well for modern art, modern art enthusiasts, and modern music as they move into the next, undoubtedly electronic millennium.

 

For a related story, see “Light, then … time: Bill Viola at SFMOMA.”

 

This article originally appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter on July 15, 1999.

 

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.”