CURATOR: KATHLEEN FORDE
Bill Viola has been investigating the mysteries of the human condition for more than forty years, employing technology as a medium that during those decades evolved at a rapid pace. In the past twenty years, a period represented by nine of the ten works in this exhibition, Viola emerged not only as a pioneer in the field of media arts, but perhaps even more so as one as of the most important and revered artists of our time. Impermanence is Viola’s first major survey exhibition in Istanbul.
His works—exquisitely composed, mesmerizing—could best be described as “cinematic” if one were only concerned with esthetics. Each work seduces us with its hint of a grand narrative at work, a promise to reveal to us something we do not already know about birth, death, fear, desire, or reality. Certainly the works are enigmatic, but with their lush visual clarity, and with the presence of humans and human agency, with some conflict being confronted—we search for the story.
But these works are not so easily consumed. They are like koans, classic Buddhist riddles that are irresolvable, the contemplation of which destabilizes our everyday routine consciousness and forces us to transcend that consciousness, to a state in which, according to Surrealists as well as Buddhists, we have the possibility of actually seeing reality. We may experience a glimpse of what Viola calls the “invisible world” where our standard intellectual configurations of existence are revealed to be artificial: our sense of an independent self, our sensory experience of the physical world, and our awareness of time—time passing, time slowing or speeding up, time defining age and memory and the distinction between past, present, and future. Viola is asking us to consider that all of these are merely perception.
There are themes that run throughout all ten works: immersion, transformation, a confrontation with basic elements of air, and water. That last one is among Viola’s most powerful motifs. In works such as Ascension and The Raft water is a force the human figures struggle with and are controlled by; while in other works, such as Madison and Sharon, the immersion in water is a peaceful, perhaps edenic experience, a connection to the dream state. Viola’s early childhood event of near drowning is well known, but rather than see autobiography in his art, we can consider his own interpretation of his experience, as one true moment when he saw reality as it is, beautiful but fleeting. Buddhists will remind us, as will the naysayers of our current social media saturation, that this is a problem of attentiveness, of being present in the moment.
Chott el-Djerid, a much earlier video from 1979, addresses the question of perception, and serves to underpin the connective strands of the later pieces. Subtitled A Portrait in Light and Heat, it considers the phenomenon of a desert mirage, the dry Saharan lake of the title, and features the near-whiteout of a winter prairie landscape. The images are disorienting. We are perhaps meant to reckon with the disturbing notion that if our senses are unreliable then we have no mechanism for assessing the world or our selves within it. More likely Viola is simply inviting us to engage in the principal activity that he says defines his work: “looking with great focus at the ordinary things around me.”