September 16, 2008
Video artist Bill Viola dropped his notes on his way up to the podium last Wednesday night at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. With a shrug, he joked that his lecture—the pages now scrambled—would lack order. But the traditional organization one expects from a story or a narrative is decidedly not the way Viola likes to convey his message. His works often evoke mood, thought or perception. There is much more to the world than meets the eye, he believes, and his video installations, which have appeared at MOMA, the Whitney and the Getty, capture the invisible images, the themes and mental states that we encounter along the way.
So throughout the lecture, I felt like had I tossed him a theme—love, death, the environment, human nature—he would have happily mused for hours on any one. He carried dossiers for each of his ideas, delivering his melange of thoughts with a tense urgency, as if he were reporting on the week’s financial turmoil in the world markets. But he was talking about things like, solitude.
On technology, he said that never before have we been more empowered by it and yet, more endangered because of it, citing the devastation that could be rendered with the touch of a finger, just one keystroke—be it, the detonation of a bomb or the ruin of a relationship with a ambiguous tone in an email. On solitude, he pondered the harsh punishment of solitary confinement causing, in a few cases, insanity for some prisoners. But self-imposed by the religiously devout, solitude could be the source of newfound wisdom and compassion.
Do we have time for one more, he asked the audience after delivering on several of his themes. When the clock ran out, he decided the lecture would be Part 1, and that he would come back with a sequel. It sure wouldn’t be a Hollywood blockbuster, I thought.
A screening followed of his 2005 video, “Fire Woman,” depicting a woman facing down a raging wall of fire. Over the several minutes of the video, all my thoughts vanished and I slowly succumbed to the fire’s roar. I could feel its heat. This, said Viola afterwards, was the mind’s eye of a dying man.
The image of the fire woman now seared into my mind, I left the lecture a little more enlightened. I decided that Viola’s scrambled collage of meditations had actually rendered for me a brief glimpse into the mind’s eye of an artist. And I thought about the role of an artist—to cast an eye on the confusion and disorder in the world, point out its contradictions, shake things up and get people thinking.
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