Art After Modernism-Fall Semester 2013

The Inarticulable Sublime

      I had the opportunity to experience Bill Viola’s Going Forth By Day at the Guggenheim (NY) in 2002 that comprised five videos and sound, “The Deluge”, “Fire Birth”, “The Path”, “The Voyage” and “First Light”. It was an overwhelming sight to witness in “The Deluge” a perpetual scene of people running from a building followed by thousands and thousands of gallons of water, numerous household objects, and a few flaccid “bodies” streaming down stairs through the front door out onto a street. I stood there in front of the screen until there were only rivulets of streaming water at the end of the video. I was transfixed and dismayed, so speechless that the most I could mutter to my friend was a quiet, “Wow”.  Quite taken, when the video began again I sat on the floor watching it and each of the videos in the gallery several times comparing and combining them in order to find some kind of greater understanding. What has stayed with me all this time has been difficult to articulate. I accepted the experience as one of a handful of exhibition encounters that I felt deeply, particularly the ascending man from a pool of water in “Fire Birth”.

Later on having become a little bit more familiar with Viola’s works, albeit over the Internet, I came to appreciate a number of his videos, such as “The Raft” (2004), “The Crossing” (1996), “The Reflecting Pool” (1979), however to me, to view most of his works in person is key to the potentiality of what I believe is his desired affect on the viewer. Being prolific in talking publicly about his works, himself, and his spiritual views, he repeats in various ways some of his core beliefs that support what he creates as an artist, such as birth is not a beginning and death is not an end, pure infinite dreams lie beneath the eyes and mind and are the reflection of one’s own soul talking to other souls, throat clenching, deeply profound fear is man’s greatest invention—the thing that creates art—the thing that tells you that you can get to the edge of the precipice and close your eyes and jump.[1]

While I have never read anything stating so, by the manners in which he speaks and often holds one or both hands in mudra positions, I believe he views himself as a teacher to the world or at least, a unabashed speaker of his personal spiritual truths. Yet too, even though he is a talker, I believe he is purposefully spare. After listening to numerous interviews and reading slews about him in the last week, I wish I never had delved so deeply because just as I could not put a finger on what moved me about portions of Going Forth By Day all those years ago, now I cannot quite put a finger on what it is about him that bothers me.

Through a Kantian understanding Cynthia Freeland described his work: “When we are faced by something vast or powerful like a mountain range or storm, what Kant calls our faculties of sensibility and imagination become overwhelmed. They cannot take it all in. But on the other hand, we have another cognitive faculty, reason, which feels uplifted by the experience. Reason, which is also the source of morality and freedom for humans, somehow identifies with the vast object. But this does not involve actual cognition, which is done by yet another faculty, understanding. No faculty is adequate to the sublime experience. It is as if instead reason makes an intuitive leap to embrace the sublime object without actually conceptualizing or recognizing it-and we ride a resultant surge of energy” (Robertson and McDaniel, 279). Immediately I questioned the specifics of her description of sublimity when referring to his work. I recalled a former art history professor prolifically describing numerous sublime artworks during a series of lectures on Romanticism, one of which was J.M.W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840) that is undeniably a painting depicting man set against man, and the sublimity of great natural forces and what might be believed to be divine retribution. But she said too much about each work just as Freeland wrote too much. Suddenly it occurs to me that one thing that is disturbing is that Bill Viola says too much and when he purposefully puts himself into check by stating he has said too much, the carefully carved out market that is Bill Viola (thanks to his never tiring wife, Kira Perov) says a lot.

Perhaps the whole of what I have just expressed is a final recognizing that the brunt of Viola’s work has become too repeated in its expression of humankind’s cyclical life experiences and its fabrications of elemental sublimity.  I understand he almost drowned as a young boy and that the power of childhood memories can remain with us throughout adulthood. Wasn’t it Thor Heyerdahl on the raft, Kon Tiki, who was afraid of water, yet sailed for thousands of miles upon the Pacific taking action to uphold his beliefs against his fears?  To me, Viola’s excessive water iterations are becoming more and more like over-priced cheap illusion, albeit masterfully implemented.  An argument in terms, I know! While his work has become extremely glossy for my tastes, too much focused on the pictures he stated are no longer of interest to him after he studies them to come up with ideas (um, really?), I am still riveted to certain characteristics of his works. Extreme slow motion technology affords the eye to catch the beauty of time passing and lovely bodily expressions. So through these aspects by relation, I often remain in a kind of mesmerized, speechless state that, yes, still comes from that quiet viewpoint I mentioned earlier that continues to be fairly inarticulable for me. The one thing I have learned from my research this week is that my respect for Bill Viola’s work is largely due to an awe response about what technology can offer to the artist’s playground.


[1] Lucas, Peter. “A Conversation with Bill Viola”. Glasstire (Texas Visual Art), 03 October 2013. http://glasstire.com/2013/10/03/a-conversation-with-bill-viola/. Web.

Reading List

  • Eleonor Heartney. “The Global Culture War”. Art in America, October 2011. Pp. 119-123. Print.
  • Craig McDaniel and Jean Robertson. “Spirituality”. Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.
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