You wait years for a major piece of contemporary non-secular art to blow you
away, and then two come along at once…
Back in New York after my trip to San Francisco to see Saint
François d’Assise, I accompanied a couple of houseguests on
their first trip to the Guggenheim Museum. The main exhibition there, Moving
Pictures, is a chronological survey of photographic and video pieces
from the permanent collection. It includes a lot of first-rate artists, but
many fewer first-rate works. It’s probably worth a visit, but it’s certainly
not the kind of show you’ll remember for years to come.
At the top of the museum, however, is an amazing piece by Bill Viola, called
Going Forth By Day. If you’re one of the handful of people who consider
themselves to be big fans of video installations, then I’m sure you’ve seen
this already and don’t need me to tell you how good it is. If, on the other
hand, you’re the sort of person who would rather eat nails than stand uncomfortably
in a darkened room for 35 minutes while nothing much happens in videos projected
onto the walls, then I would very much encourage you to go see this installation:
it just might change your mind about the whole medium.
Going Forth By Day was commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin,
which has a pretty good English-language website
devoted to the piece. The installation comprises five panels, representing a
cycle from birth through to resurrection. In the original installation, in Berlin,
one stepped into the room through the first panel: "To enter the space,
visitors must literally step into the light of the first image," in the
words of the website. For whatever reason, New York turned the installation
around, so you enter between panels 2 and 3 and then exit through panel
1 into a little room with wall texts and sponsorship details.
I kind of see why Viola might have wanted people to "step into the light"
in Berlin, but certainly the way the installation is configured in New York,
I hate the way that the portal to the back room cuts a huge hole in the first
panel. It’s a bit like the huge Arthur Boyd tapestry
in Canberra’s parliament building: for all that people say it’s meant to look
like that, it still looks wrong. You can’t ignore the hole: in that sense it’s
more like the Nasdaq
Sign in Times Square. And Viola’s videos are so luscious that you don’t
want large chunks removed from them.
In New York, then, you end up really looking only at the last four of the five
panels. You occasionally glance over to the first one, but it’s hard to make
out what’s going on, there’s a bright room behind it which makes it difficult
to concentrate on the video, and in any case nothing really happens: it’s just
a kind of amniotic underwater scene, filmed in orange.
The second panel is the most technically astonishing: long and thin, it uses
three state-of-the-art RGB projectors, each not only perfectly aligned itself,
but also perfectly aligned with its neighbour(s). I fear to think how long it
took to set up this room. The upshot is an endless procession of people, walking
from left to right in a forest. (The title
"isolated elements swimming in the same direction for the purpose of understanding"
springs to mind; Viola has gone for the more simple "The Path".) Each
walks in his own way, at his own pace, although it looks as if Viola has also
done his trademark slowing-down here. It would be fascinating to just sit and
watch this line of individuals walking towards something unknown, but there
aren’t any seats in the room and there’s too much going on elsewhere.
The third panel is the centerpiece of the suite. Called "The Deluge",
it shows a stone building, and the people who pass into, out of and past it.
It fits into Viola’s recent rubric of making films where first you wait for
something to happen, then something happens suddenly, and finally you watch
the aftermath of the thing which happened. The temporal framing heightens the
impact of the thing which happens – in this case, a flood of water which
washes away those people who dallied too long. And the fact that you’re forced
to spend a lot of time looking at the high-definition video also serves to make
you notice things you might normally ignore. Most good art gets better the longer
you spend with it, of course, but that doesn’t stop most of use from failing
to give great paintings the amount of time they deserve. Viola forces us to
give him time, and in return he gives us something genuinely transcendent.
Viola has done similar things with the fourth and fifth panels, called "The
Voyage" and "First Light" respectively. He’s timed them so that
the main event in each panel happens sequentially: first in the third, then
in the fourth and finally in the fifth, with the resurrection of a woman’s son
from under the flood waters. Viola is directing our attention to a certain place
with both action and sound, but of course we’re free to keep an eye on the other
panels as well.
The crystal-clear images are deliberately designed to echo Renaissance fresco
painting: they’re projected directly onto the wall, with no framing mechanism.
Viola is positioning himself as the heir to the non-secular masters of the past,
although his vision is more broadly religious than specifically Roman Catholic
or even Christian. (The title Going Forth By Day is derived from a
literal translation of the title of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, "The
Book of Going Forth by Day".)
After having experienced both this work and Saint François d’Assise
in short succession, I’m beginning to see what it is that the likes of Kim
Howells see missing in contemporary art. I’m a huge fan of conceptualism,
and I think that works like Damien Hirst’s shark
can raise deep and troubling questions about mortality. Other works, such as
the spot paintings,
can be very beautiful. But faith, an idea of deeply-felt conviction
and artistic vision, is largely missing.
Religion is definitely uncool in the art world, and often when it does appear
it’s so nauseating
that one can forgive the gallery-going public from being turned off it altogether.
But occasionally an artist will have the courage of his religious convictions,
risk ridicule, and try to create a work which touches the spirit as well as
the mind. Even more occasionally, he will succeed – even in the case of
those of us who don’t even believe in the existence of the spirit in the first
place. And when that happens, art reaches levels which even the most sublime
of modernists could never hope to achieve.