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Artist Viola’s world infused with divine


I walk into a dark room and am confronted by a large, free-hanging screen onto which is projected an image of a man walking slowly toward me. When he reaches the point where his body almost fills the screen, he stops, looking intently ahead. I glance down at his feet and am startled to see a few small flames beginning to dance around his toes. They begin to grow, and over the next few minutes I watch the man become engulfed in fire. I then notice an eerie blue glow emanating from the other side of the screen. I follow the light and see the same man being doused by torrents of water. The simultaneous sounds of conflagration and deluge escalate and encompass the space. I know it’s time to leave when the flames die down to a flicker, and the remaining water gathers in a few, small puddles. The man is gone.

I have just experienced a video/sound installation called “The Crossing,” by artist Bill Viola. A retrospective surveying 25 years of his career is currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, with off-site installations at the Sony Plaza Public Arcade and the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Encompassing 20 installations and almost as many videotapes, this is the most blatantly religious exhibit to appear in a contemporary art setting in years.

Upon leaving the show, I remarked to my husband that I felt that although the medium used -- video and a host of electronic and mechanical devices -- was unarguably 20th century, the artworks themselves felt medieval.

So it came as no surprise when I later read an interview with Viola by art historian Virginia Rutledge in the March issue of Art in America. “When we compare the gold sky in medieval paintings to the blue sky in our vacation snapshots,” she quotes the artist as saying, “we tend to look at the medieval image and say we’re seeing symbolism. But it may well be photorealism since for the medieval person the world was infused with the divine, which could only be represented by gold.”

For Bill Viola, the contemporary world as well is infused with the divine, and he does his best to jar our senses into experiencing it as fact. Although Viola draws from a range of spiritual traditions and asserts that he is not trying to “illustrate any particular dogma,” it is nonetheless the most authentically Catholic body of work I have ever experienced.

While there are specific references to saints and some Catholic-sounding titles, it is through Viola’s insistence that our bodies are the gateway to the sacred that the essence of Catholic spirituality is conveyed.

Throughout the exhibition, one experiences the recurring use of actual -- not just representational -- sensory elements: sound, light, darkness, water, earth, movement and even smell -- all of which have become integral to both our Catholic liturgy and psyche. Viola’s spirituality is grounded in the physical. God is indeed everywhere: in birth, in death, in sleep, in the wildness and beauty of nature, in the dross of our postindustrial society, in a child’s birthday party, in terror, in the mundane.

Progressing through the Viola exhibition is akin to entering into a series of chapels. In the dimly lit surroundings, there is a hushed atmosphere. Even in the midst of a crowd, there is a curious feeling of solitude -- not unlike what one can experience in a monastic setting.

“Room for St. John of the Cross” contains two rooms, one within the other. On the far wall of the larger of the two is projected a black and white image -- in dizzying, furious motion -- of snow-covered mountains. A loud, storm-like noise envelops the space. A light emanates from the sole window of the smaller room, inside of which the roaring becomes muted, replaced by a calm voice reciting a Latin text. The floor is covered with rich brown soil. A small wooden table is positioned off to the right. On it sits a small TV monitor with an image of the same mountain -- but this time in perfect stillness and in full color. To its left is a pitcher and a glass of water. The meditation here centers around prayer as it taps a source of living water that will never run dry, as it grounds us and stabilizes our vision in the midst of often chaotic surroundings.

In “The Greening,” a large color video projection illuminates one end of a darkened room. In almost excruciating slow motion, two women are seen talking together amid what the museum brochure describes as “an industrial urban landscape” but which could also be an alleyway somewhere in Venice (in fact the form of the video is based upon Jacobo da Pontormo’s 16th century painting of “The Visitation”).

Their conversation is interrupted by a third woman, who seems to be pregnant and who approaches the older of the women, whispering excitedly to her. The intensity of emotion shared by these two women serves to eclipse their surroundings, including the other woman in the picture. She stands awkwardly until she, too, is drawn into the interchange. In this meditation we reflect upon the story of Mary and Elizabeth and, perhaps, assume the role of the anonymous bystander. How do we share in each other’s joy? How do we extend our own happiness to include others?

A glimpse of the hereafter (or, more accurately, the “herenow”) is provided in “Tiny Deaths.” This time the room is encircled with large video projections on three walls. Individual voices waft in and out of audible range, and human images are just barely discernible in a murky atmosphere. Randomly, one by one, just as these figures take on enough form to become recognizable, they burst into flashes of bright light, illuminating the entire room for a brief moment, temporarily blotting out the others.

The dead are not gone but merely veiled from our sight, Viola seems to be saying, and although spirit and light, they retain an inseparable and recognizable connection to their corporeal existence. We meditate upon the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.

Although Viola’s artwork has been shown in a number of churches, such as the already-mentioned John the Divine, as far as I know none of these have been Catholic -- at least not in the United States. Perhaps it’s too much to wish that our church return to its former role as patron of the arts. In the meantime, I’ll settle for this extraordinary exhibit that has temporarily transformed the Whitney Museum into a sacred space.

The exhibit will be on display there through May 10. It then travels to Amsterdam and Frankfurt but will return to the United States with showings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (June 4-Sept. 7, 1999) and the Art Institute of Chicago (Oct. 16, 1999-Jan. 16, 2000).

Virginia Maksymowicz is a sculptor and an adjunct professor of art at the Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia.

National Catholic Reporter, April 24, 1998