restricted access 5. The Video Veronicas of Bill Viola
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127 Miracles and Instants Religious themes and motifs are present throughout the different periods of the work of the American video artist Bill Viola and appear in a variety of ways.1 He has said that he does not practice any particular form of religion , but is very interested in religious art and spiritual experiences related to various religious traditions, and mysticism in its different versions: Islamic, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist.2 Usually his installations invite viewers into immersive environments of sound and image, charged with emotion, and centered on such threshold moments of human existence as birth and death, or on overwhelming emotions. Starting in the late 1990s, Viola created a series of video installations that refer to or even closely restage wellknown religious paintings. His work makes an interesting case as it seeks to define the conditions of spiritual experience in the space of the contemporary museum or gallery. In addition to being a means of reflecting on the human condition, and on such themes as the impossibility of transcendence , Viola’s engagement with religious art can be read as an attempt to reflect on the history of the relatively young medium of video, which has c h a p t e r 5 The Video Veronicas of Bill Viola 128 The Video Veronicas of Bill Viola existed for only a few decades, and is particularly suited to recycling film footage and remediating other images.3 A number of Viola’s pieces rework the motif of the acheiropoietic image. This motif is present not only on the level of direct visual reference to the Veil of Veronica, as in the installations Memoria, 2000, and Unspoken: Silver and Gold, 2001, but in the way Viola works with the possibilities of the medium of high-definition video (Figure 11). His usual strategy of using extreme slow motion, present throughout different periods in his work, culminates in the series of portraits of different emotional states in the exhibition The Passions, 2003, mostly showing flat-screen video tableaux that closely restage well-known religious paintings.4 Contemporarylooking men and women portray a range of emotional states, and the video is in extreme slow motion. These portraits claim to render truthfully and exhaustively the detail of the fleeting emotional states, thus building a spectacular situation of display that invites its viewer to contemplate and identify with the image on an emotional level. Figure 11. Bill Viola, Memoria, 2000. Continuously running black-and-white video projection on silk cloth suspended from ceiling; projected image 61 ⫻ 76.2 cm, room dimensions variable. Courtesy of Studio Bill Viola. Photograph by Kira Perov. The Video Veronicas of Bill Viola 129 In addition to overt iconic citations of Veronica’s Veil, the theme of the “true image” is implicit in Viola’s work insofar as that work highlights the inherent tension between the supposed veracity of video images and their artificial, mediated nature. The presence of this motif in his work is not accidental; it is inherent to his reflection on the status of the technical medium of video. Throughout his work he returns to the issue of the truth that images can reveal, and the ways they can be considered as true, posing this as a historical question. And still, Viola’s interest in the theme of veracity is related to a specifically human history of emotions; he insists on strongly emphasizing the interpersonal moment by addressing the viewer on an emotional level. In Memoria and Unspoken the face becomes a plastic mask that ostensibly reveals the truth of emotions. Yet this is a highly constructed , mediated image, which contradicts the truth claim of the hyperrealism of the slowly moving video image. The miracle, or the spiritual moment, is constructed by Viola as a media effect. In the contemporary medium of video this question of veracity plays out in an intriguing way, given that video is a medium that allegedly reduces the role of the maker and thus produces an allegedly true picture of reality. With the high-definition video and high-speed cameras that Viola uses, this claim of a true picture of reality is enhanced. The outcome, however, is a highly manipulated, constructed image. His work is closer to that of a painter whose images are creative inventions. Viola recognizes this; in his own words, the medium reflecting the face was capable of visually transforming that face into the extreme emotion that it was experiencing at...