Bill Viola’s Bodies of Light


Bill Viola, Bodies of Light, Installation Views

Upon entering the dimly lit James Cohan Gallery, one room beckons with a low, droning sound as mottled static scurries across the walls. The degraded image quality of the photographic art hearkens to pre-digital times, while the immersive video projections play out in continuous loops. Pneuma mimics itself in a strange manner. Three channels seem to repeat the same footage, but subtle distinctions lead to a visual accretion–the different pieces weave in and out of one another, producing a wavelike motion for the whole. The amorphous forms by artist Bill Viola will sometimes depict recognizable images but nevertheless require a high degree of attentiveness to decipher—one can never tell if the appearance is the thing itself.

Bodies of Light is about as diverse as video exhibitions come, ranging from room-sized installations of grainy black-and-white projections to small LCD monitors that display heavily saturated, high-definition footage. Entering the rest of the show, one encounters a variety of smaller screens placed around the gallery’s walls. The monitors display a unique progression of images, yet some are paired with others, creating a combined motif.


Bill Viola, Old Oak (Study), 2005 (Color High-Definition video on LCD flat panel mounted on wall)

Each room is much like an installation itself–with subtle changes in brightness and sound. Old Oak (Study) is a plodding video that examines a sunrise behind a gnarled tree and hillside. It best exemplifies the revelation that moving image media is a light-source in and of itself, aside from its ability to produce recognizable symbols or narratives.


Bill Viola, Bodies of Light, 2006 (Black-and-white video diptych on plasma displays mounted on wall)

The title piece, Bodies of Light, is a diptych consisting of two tall, rectangular plasma screens. On one screen, the ghostly form of a nude male stands motionless and colorless; on the second screen, the form of a nude female does the same. (I wondered if the original subjects were even real people.) The images evoke indistinct, wax figures. A pulsating lens flare slowly floats up the centerline of the figures, sometimes silhouetting them and at other times illuminating their blurry features. The male and female nudes placed side by side suggest both congruencies and asymmetries.


Bill Viola, Four Hands, 2001 (Black-and-white video polyptych
on four LCD flat panels mounted on shelf)

Much of Viola’s imagery can be described as figurative, but loosely so as in the piece, Four Hands. Four separate monitors each depict a pair of hands. Some hands are old and wrinkled, others young and tender. The hands gesture to the audience in enigmatic yet familiar ways.

There is a deep-rooted humanism in Four Hands. Images of hands seem to elicit an immediate, emotional response in the viewer. But beyond the gut-level emotional response, there is a conceptual dialogue going on too. The work is a reflection on language and communication. One thinks of sign language, but there is a language of hand gestures that is also cultural. And then, there is a narrative behind each of the pairs of hands in the exhibit; what the hands built or made in their lifetimes; what the hands broke or mended. These are the silent, personal histories that accompany Four Hands.


Bill Viola, Incarnation, 2008 (Color High-Definition video on plasma display
mounted on wall; two channels amplified sound)

The more traditional figurative studies undertaken by Viola are also among the most transcendent. Indeed, one of the highlights of Bodies of Light is the piece Incarnation, a single-screen video portrait.

We watch the video from its apparent beginning, and two hazy, gray figures stride directly toward the viewer. As the figures come nearer, they eventually enter a sheet of falling water. The crashing curtain of water grows louder and louder to the point of becoming invasive and unsettling. The climax of noise shudders throughout the entire room.

The figures emerge through the other side of the water, gradually. For the first time, we see they are male and female nudes in full color and high contrast. They arrive weary, disoriented, and dripping wet. The “incarnation” of the title evokes spiritual parallels (God becoming flesh, spiritual cleansing, spiritual transformation). In the video exhibit, the man and woman turn together and lurch back through the waterfall and into darkness, and the cycle begins again.

The dramatic transformation of the figures from one side of the water to the other begs the question of whether this footage was digitally manipulated, further inquiring into the artist’s process. Before the shrouded pair enters the sheet of water, we are reminded of shadowy, early Expressionist films. After they pass through the sheet of water, a supernatural glow lends itself to contemporary film and hyper-real imagery. Thus the work, Incarnation, is also a comment on the history and the process of moving image making.

The formal attributes of the video and photography used in these works (quality, contrast, speed) are equal or paramount to the content of Viola’s art. As the artist grapples with the contradictions of his medium, the viewer receives images just as much body as they are light.

Charles-13Chip (Charles, Σhip, (hip, et al.) is a multimedia artist, essayist, poet, and thinker. His work is often eclectic due to his emphasis on process and intention over medium. Paradox, absurdity and linguistics are common in his work. He is currently seeking a drastic life change including – but not limited to – a new place of residence. He believes that in the land of the blind, the man with the hippest music collection is king.

4 responses to “Bill Viola’s Bodies of Light”

  1. […] Bill Viola’s Bodies of Light . . . illuminating art review on a new video exhibition at James Cohan Gallery in New York. […]

  2. aureliomadrid says:

    …very nice review Chip!

    I wish to see one of Viola's video installations in person someday. I can tell from what you've written that it is quite an experience.

    Thank you & please keep up the good work.

  3. aureliomadrid says:

    …very nice review Chip!

    I wish to see one of Viola's video installations in person someday. I can tell from what you've written that it is quite an experience.

    Thank you & please keep up the good work.

  4. M Grosley says:

    I saw “Incarnation” during exposition “Hope” in Dinard (France). It was very beatiful, poetic and transcendent. Thank you very much for this sublime moment which i spent with your art.

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