Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Passing

The Passing (1991) is a video by Bill Viola that juxtaposes various kinds of footage--nocturnal desert landscapes, slow motion shots of bodies underwater, an elderly woman dying in a hospital bed (and more)--with shots of the artist himself in bed, unable to sleep because of a neighbor's barking dog, which invites the interpretation that everything else in the video is being dreamt of by Viola. At 54 minutes, it manages to do a number of things at the same time: it's a travelogue of the American southwest, a home movie about Viola's family, and a religious allegory for birth and death.

I first encountered Viola's work in my foundation year at NSCAD, and at the time, I found him boring and pretentious. The former complaint, of course, turned out to be pure nonsense once I developed better reflexes, and my initial reaction against Ancient of Days (1979-81) and Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) (1979) mirrored my response to a trio of commercial narrative features I first encountered at about the same time: Alain Resnais' L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), David Lynch's Eraserhead (1977) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979)--all three highly meditative works where the exploration of a particular space (an hotel in eastern Europe in Resnais', various industrial wastelands in the United States and Russia in Lynch's and Tarkovsky's), and the eerie moods conjured up by the sounds and images, count for more than incident or character. And while I admire all three a great deal now, I still have some lingering doubts. As many times as I've seen it, I still can't make heads or tails of Resnais' film, but I can't stop thinking about it either; like its hero/Giorgio Albertazzi, who can never win the game with the matches, I find myself drawn back to the film again and again only to be frustrated once more. And while Lynch's and Tarkovsky's would both be in my top 100, I have to admit they're pretty sexist. The former strikes me as too implicated in the protagonist/Jack Nance's disgusted attraction to the opposite sex to comment on it in any meaningful way. That his idealized fantasy woman/Laurel Near is a wholesome, Doris Day-like figure who's completely asexual (unlike his bitchy girlfriend/Charlotte Stewart and his promiscuous neighbor/Judith Anna Roberts) suggests a conservative reading of the film--and Blue Velvet (1986)--as reflecting a desire to return to life as it was before the sexual revolution; one may counter that Lynch's version of small town innocence in the latter is highly ironic, but he doesn't make the alternatives seem very appealing.

Viola may not be a raging misogynist like Tarkovsky, whose view of motherhood as a woman's highest and only calling was informed by his religious beliefs (this attitude is even more apparent in his anti-feminist Nostalghia [1983]; it's only evident in Stalker when the Stalker's wife/Alisa Frejndlikh delivers a pathetic monologue to the camera towards the end of the film), but like Tarkovsky, Viola seems to view his art as a kind of spiritual calling.

Paramount to the notion of the image as sacred object is the icon, a form found in both oriental and occidental tradition... An icon can be any image that has acquired power through its use as an object of worship. In fact, the status of icon was the goal and even the measure of success of the majority of visual artworks created in the great traditions of ancient Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The presence of art critics was not required as devotees instantly knew, at first glance, whether or not the work in question qualified. The artists created their works for God, not for the art world... [Icons] are necessarily functional objects, their function fufilling a most basic primary and private need within the individual. (1)

This quote is taken from a collection of Viola's writings about his work, but it could just as easily be a quote by Tarkovsky. Central to many of Tarkovsky's films is a belief in the transformative power of faith or ritual; in the final episode of Andrei Rublev (1966), which takes as its subject the titular icon painter/Anatoli Solonitsyn, a young man/Nikolai Burlyavev claims his father passed on the secret of bell casting before he died and commands a large crew with unshakable confidence; later, when the bell has been cast, the boy confesses that he knows nothing and his father took the secret to his grave. On the British National Gallery's website for their exhibition of Viola's The Passions (2000-02) (2) I found this statement:

Viola describes a kind of awakening when he saw a woman in the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo looking at a statue of Kannon, the embodiment of compassion--an image that Viola had been conditioned to consider merely a work of art. He watched her slowly bow and begin praying to it--putting it to use. Viola intends his art not for decoration or diversion or education but for transformation.

As a non-believer, I find this pretty dubious. And while I've yet to hear of anyone slowly bowing and beginning to pray in front of one of Viola's installations, I'm reminded of the split reaction to Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), which Christian viewers--or at least a good many of them--found to be deeply moving, while secular types like me--or at least a good many of us--found it to be not only religious kitsch but bad religious kitsch. Still, regardless of the negative reviews, devotees instantly knew, at first glance, that the work in question qualified. I remember the day Gibson's film opened, I was on the bus going home when a group of women got on and started discussing the film loudly; one said it made her feel as though she was there, which ties into a point Viola makes in the article quoted above:

Icons are timeless images, and even though in the West they often depict temporal events (the Annunciation, the Flight out of Egypt, ect.), the mythic or religious existence of those events (i.e., their present tense) is far more important. Icons maintain their currency by being continually updated to the present, by sustaining a constant relevance to Now. (3)

Given the abudance of slow motion shots in Gibson's film and the lack of any kind of narrative progression, one wonders whether he was consciously influenced by Viola's The Passions. (Gibson's production company is named Icon Productions.) The emphasis on Christ/Jim Caviezel's physical suffering in Gibson's film reminds me of the Hindu ceremony that concludes Viola's I Do Not Know What it Is I Am Like (1986), in which the participants pierce their bodies with long needles and walk across hot coals. Because we're not given a word of context about the ceremony, Viola seems out of his depth--a kind of spiritual tourist whose fascination with Hindu beliefs begins and ends with his amazement at its Otherness; that my father, who's a practicing Hindu, thinks the people who do that sort of thing are nuts indicates how far removed the ceremony is from mainstream Hinduism which doesn't seem to interest Viola in the slightest.

The religious themes in The Passing are more palatable because of Viola's personal investment in the material (the piece is dedicated to the memory of his deceased mother) and because it's possible to appreciate it on a more modest level: while the piece hasn't transformed me, it has given me a great deal of pleasure. Viola's spiritual side is most evident in the opposition of birth and death in the piece; at one point he seemlessly transitions from a flowing white sheet in one of the video's underwater sequences (in this context, suggesting the womb) to a similar white sheet being placed over a dead body. Elsewhere we see a mother holding her child only moments after giving birth, and a panning shot around a living room combined with a wipe to another shot panning around the inside of a hospital room where an elderly man sits by his dying wife, suggesting a continuity between the two spaces. In Viola's work, death is always paired with a sense of renewal; one of his best videos, The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), begins with the artist emerging from the wilderness in the background and approaching a reflecting pool which occupies the foreground. Standing between the two, he jumps into the air but, rather than cannonballing into the water, his image freezes while in the fetal position (the water continues to ripple as a series of dissolves compresses a period of a day into just a few minutes). Slowly Viola's image begins to disintegrate, and at the end of the video, he emerges from the water, naked, suggesting a kind of rebirth. Here, Viola's mother is paired with his young son, first seen running on the beach (the next to last shot shows him attending his grandmother's funeral).

At times the highfalutin symbolism can be a bit much, but what I enjoy most about The Passing is resolutely material: the desert landscapes, comtemplative pacing, the ambient soundtrack (mostly Viola's heavy breathing), and some particularly dreamlike underwater shots. One recurring image is a desk and chair in what at first appears to be an abstract, theatrical space with one intense studio light illuminating it from above. Our second glimpse of it, however, is rather distorted, indictating that it's actually underwater, though I couldn't quite believe it until a bit later when the table is suddenly turned over and some of the objects on it float away. The one thing this multifaceted video can't be said to do is tell a story, which I mean as an observation and not a criticism. Watching Arrested Development (2003-06) on my new HD TV, one of the things that's striking how much faster the editing seems on a larger screen; no shot is held longer than absolutely necessary for it to establish a point. In the episode "Not Without My Daughter," when Michael Bluth/Justin Bateman is interrogated by the police, the camera zooms out to reveal that Detective Fellows/Jonathan Penner is sitting beside his young daughter, who's occupying herself with a coloring book; seemingly the moment the camera stops zooming out, there's a cut to Detective Streudler/Kevin McDonald, who turns around to reveal that he's holding an infant. Additionally, the long zoom lens flattens the space of the image and reduces the depth of field, resulting in a greater emphasis on the information that each shot presents--which makes sense given the time restriction placed on a half-hour television program, and is largely what makes the show so funny. In The Passing, and particularly the desert sequences, Viola is giving us the time to really contemplate a space; if shows like Arrested Development assume a reactive viewer (the desired reaction to the sequence described above being surprise and laughter), Viola's work calls for a much more active form of spectatorship.

Whatever my doubts about the spiritual themes in Viola's work, he's a major figure in the field of video art and The Passing is a exciting, multifaceted work that I don't feel I've fully exhausted even after three viewings. It's a video that takes elements which themselves are extremely familiar--the landscape of the desert, home movies, birth and death--and, through the dreamlike images in black-and-white and the austere soundtrack, makes these things seem strange and unfamiliar. As an artistic stratedgy, this implies not only a more active approach to viewing media but, by making us look at things we take for granted as if seeing them for the first time--as Viola's son is--it implies taking a more active approach to looking at the world.

1. Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (Boston: MIT Press, 1994), page 199.
2. The image on the right is of Viola's The Quintet of the Admonished (2000).
3. Ibid, p. 199

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