The elemental sublime
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The Elemental Sublime
Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath, The Guggenheim Museum SoHo, January 18–March 23, 1997.

Nothing is more sublime than mighty power and strength. A stream that runs within its banks is a beautiful object; but when it rushes down with the impetuosity and noise of torrent, it becomes a sublime one.

—Hugh Blair, “Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres” (1783) 1

The highly sensual, dematerializing images of Bill Viola tease the limitations of art and provoke boundless questions about the relationship of the filmic or video image to traditional notions of beauty and the sublime. By means of darkness, repetitive imagery, slow motion, sound, and abstraction, the artist encourages a meditative response from the viewer. He transforms the art museum into both public viewing space and private meditational space. His choice of subjects and his validation of beauty assert hypnotic power over the individual viewer and paint a fresh portrait of the contemporary sublime. I do not propose with this short essay any truths as to the artist’s intent with regard to such timeless concepts, nor do I claim any great expertise in understanding the intricate relationships of art to the beautiful and the sublime. I do, however, believe that Viola’s work positions the “media arts” in a new arena with regard to relationships between image and viewer, image and beauty, the viewer and the sublime.

Film has essentially two identities or properties, the celluloid or film stock itself and the projection, rendering it both material and immaterial. The material is, of course, the print itself, and the immaterial is the image perceived by the viewer, the formless object of viewer attention and investigation. What is the actual form or shape of the projected image? Is its form a function of the screen on which it is projected? Does the screen limit its form and render it material or is it an insufficient boundary out of which the image may flow? Can the projected image be a “thing of beauty,” or is it too formless, too dependent upon circumstance and upon the film medium itself, its unaesthetic container? For the sake of argument, if we look to Immanuel Kant, [End Page 65] beauty then is connected to the form of the object, which has definite physical boundaries. How then might we conceive of the beauty of a projected image, which is in many ways formless and boundless? If the sublime, again in Kantian terms, is found in a formless and boundless object, is not film a more suitable medium for its investigation? Perhaps film, rather than being a thing of beauty, lends itself more easily (than the bounded forms of painting and sculpture) to conveying a sense of the sublime. It is with these questions in mind that I would like to frame a more specific discussion of Viola’s art.

The exhibition consists of three large screen projections, each in a separate room enveloped in total darkness. The images are shot on 35mm film and transferred to video, resulting in a smooth, high-resolution image, though somewhat distanced. Viola’s work does not call attention to itself as technology, but suggests the finish of a canvas in motion, confirming his mastery of both medium and message. The darkness of the room immediately establishes a public space with virtual anonymity, where one can move or stare quietly at the screen for hours (a practice that most people are accustomed to in both the workplace, with its computer screens, and at home with television). With the privacy total darkness affords, the viewer is given the freedom to absorb the images’ visual changes, patterns, and repetitions, without being forced by other anxious museum visitors to step aside or to proceed to the next painting. The darkness provides a space where, unlike the brightly lit museum gallery, one is not made to feel self-conscious by the bored eyes of the nearby guard or distracted by chatty fellow viewers. The creation of this space, a cross between painting gallery and movie theatre, provides the viewer with a rare, unobstructive, and meditative setting for the public viewing of art.

The first work, The Messenger, is...