Video Killed the Traditional Artist

Accompanying technological innovations of the late 20th century, videotapes have emerged as a popular medium for artists in the 60s and 70s. Among the pioneers in this format is an American artist, Bill Viola.

Chosen to represent the United States in the esteemed “Venice Biennale,” an international bi-annual art exhibition, Viola’s prolific career is marked by achievement and recognition. Largely concerned with the human condition, Viola’s work reflects his extensive travels, communicating a broad sensibility of experience. In this light, critics like Marilyn A. Zeitlin have been compelled to liken the artist’s approach to that of Buddhist monks, “wandering the earth to find answers.”

Reluctant, however, to provide answers, Viola’s production of over 40 videotapes and installations have inspired profound reflection to audiences worldwide.

In recent years, Viola has undertaken his largest project yet, commissioned especially for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. But before his five-part projection-based installation, entitled “Going Forth by Day,” crosses the Atlantic, it is making its North American debut at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through Jan. 12, 2003.

An essential goal of Viola’s installations is to create a mock space, so as to enclose and absorb the viewer in the world the artist is presenting. In this mode, “Going Forth by Day” occupies a dark, rectangular room with its five projections lining the four walls.

The audience, centrally located, is surrounded by images on all sides; supplemented by applicable sounds, which are audible at changing frequencies and volumes. The five projections, recorded in state-of-the-art, high definition video, are each 35 minutes long and run simultaneously.

While the pieces are in one sense independent, we begin to see a related succession through “Fire Birth,” “The Path,” “The Deluge,” “The Voyage” and “First Light,” as they play out.

Addressing issues of birth, death and rebirth, Viola employs a fusion of typically western art historical iconography with eastern philosophical concepts. The direct application and arrangement of the projections, which span the walls, is reminiscent of Italian Renaissance frescoes, which were painted directly onto the wall without any framing.

The overwhelming feeling, however, derived from the progression of images is distinctly eastern, leaving us with a seemingly unending cycle of reincarnation. Viola suggests that reflecting on this universal order is perhaps the only true step forward we can take.

One of the great merits of “Going Forth by Day” is that aside from the art historical implications, the installation is wholly enjoyable in a purely emotive sense. “The Deluge,” in particular, has received a lot of attention from a wide range of audiences for its dramatic flood sequence.

We begin by watching the facade of a Neo-Classical building, as hundreds of different passersby demonstrate a cross-section of daily life. As individual occurrences intensify, tension builds to an eventually chaotic situation where people are literally running for their lives from the ensuing deluge of water. While the water begins to drain out, “The Voyage” approaches its climax, which in turn sparks the token image of “Going Forth by Day” from the fifth projection, “First Light.”

Therefore, while Viola’s installation is certainly not a film, it bears a similar sequential build up that makes it entertaining for mostly anyone. So instead of paying $10 for a predictable Hollywood blockbuster, drop the $8 student fare and find a spot on the floor inside Bill Viola’s world called “Going Forth by Day.”

To get to the Guggenheim, take the E or V train to 53rd and Lexington and transfer to the uptown 6 train to 86th and Lexington.