HAPPENINGText: Valérie Douniaux

It is not easy to attract a large number of visitors with an exhibition solely dedicated to video art, but the Bill Viola retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris already seems quite a success in this regard. Bill Viola (1951) is probably the most famous representative of video art, and the show presents a selection of the American artist’s large scale works, as well as some more delicate pieces, thus offering a comprehensive view of his career.

Going Forth By Day (détail), 2002, « First Light » (panneau 5), installation vidéo sonore, cycle de cinq projections, 36 minutes, performeurs : Weba Garretson, John Hay, Collection Pinault, Photo: Kira Perov

The videos are presented on various types of screens, from small televisions to installations with giant projections on the walls. The lay-out has been designed in order to lead the visitor on the paths of an inner travel, for a personal encounter with the works. To give as much strength as possible to the pieces, all are presented in the dark, giving to the large spaces of the Grand Palais a more intimate atmosphere than usual, and thus creating a somewhat mysterious mood. Instinctively, the visitors lower their voices and walk slowly, fully concentrating on the videos. A quiet ambiance far from the usual noise and agitation of Parisian exhibitions!

Bill Viola, The Dreamers (détail), 2013, installation vidéo sonore, sept écrans plasma verticaux, quatre canaux stéréo, en continu, performeuse : Madison Corn, Collection Pinault, Photo: Kira Perov

Indeed, one forgets the outside world when entering the Viola exhibition, and feels like living a strange dream, peaceful at times, slightly disturbing, nightmarish even, at other times. The display highlights Viola’s major themes: time, life, death and transfiguration, spirituality… Water is omnipresent: rain (sometimes going backwards), floods with evident biblical reminiscences, drowning figures (recalling an event which is supposed to have occurred when Viola was six and to have changed his perception of life, as he almost drowned). The last piece (and probably the most powerful one) of the exhibition, called The Dreamers, also consists in a series of canvases-like video-screens showing characters floating under the water, with their eyes closed.

Fire Woman, 2005, projection vidéo couleurs haute définition, quatre enceintes, 11 minutes 12 secondes, performeur : Robin Bonaccorsi, Collection Pinault, Photo: Kira Perov

One cannot help thinking of Millais’s Ophelia in front of such images, even if The Dreamers convey a much more serene sentiment. Many other videos are also infused with strong reminiscences of major works of the history of art, inscribing Viola as an heir to many of his prestigious ancestors, and creating a bond between contemporary video art and more ancient modes of expression. The Quintet of the Astonished, a slow motion movie showing the reactions of a group of five people in front of an unknown event, recalls the highly expressive characters of Caravagesque paintings, while Catherine’s room suggests the more subdued atmosphere of gothic and early Renaissance art. Both works question the notion of time, the first one with its extreme slowness, the second with five small screens each showing a moment in the day of a woman/Saint Catherine, while a window in the back opens on another temporality and the passing of seasons.

Catherine’s Room (détail), 2001, polyptique vidéo couleurs sur cinq écrans plats LCD, 18 minutes, performeuse : Weba Garretson, Bill Viola Studio, Long Beach, Etats-Unis, Photo: Kira Perov

Nevertheless, the exhibition remains quite attractive for a larger audience, who wouldn’t have such historical and religious references in mind. The videos stand for themselves, impressive, almost hypnotic, and always surprising. Such an exhibition is a complete sensorial experience. A very unusual and interesting retrospective, not only to see but also to fully feel and live, and thus probably a perfect occasion to make video art more accessible to a large audience.

Bill Viola
Date: March 5th – July 21st, 2014
Opening hours: 10:00 – 22:00 (Sunday and Monday till 20:00)
Closed on Tuesday
Place: Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris
Address: 3, avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris
Tel: +33 (0)1 4413 1717

Text: Valérie Douniaux
Photos: Kira Perov, Courtesy of the artist © Bill Viola

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