WASHINGTON D.C. — Moving pictures meet portraiture. Video, a popular media form used for almost any purpose, is rarely utilized for slow, perceptual contemplation often achieved in paintings or music.
Bill Viola’s work “The Moving Portrait” does exactly that. His work is more akin to portraiture rather than narrative stories often seen in video. His work focuses on facial language and slow-motion to allow a calmer, meditative attention to his footage.
These videos focus on the physical actions of his subjects rather than the promise of a narrative climax or conclusion to maintain interest. Examples include “The Raft”, a high-definition video projection of nineteen people suddenly hit by a high-pressure stream of water.
Subjects’ dramatic movements dominate the scene as slow-motion video in “The Raft” captures the onslaught of water. The large group of people reveals a diverse mix of reactions all at once, making an eye-popping scene filled with flailing bodies and the sensual spray of water.
As the chaos evolves, the viewers find themselves staying to see the aftermath as water recedes and the subjects recollect themselves.
Another room features “The Dreamers”: seven screens showing seven people of different backgrounds submerged and calmly floating in a bed of water. The subtle movement of bodies in water is an endless loop, resembling a portrait rather than a finite video; another meditative work.
Rather than brushstrokes or musical notes, the video capture of air bubbles and drifting limbs define the viewing experience in the perceived illusion of stillness.
Viola’s works seem intended to be watched for long periods, like scenery in nature. They are to achieve a contemplative state of mind that is no longer aware of the passage of time; perception slows as the viewer watches slow-moving subjects.
Take for instance “Dolorosa,” a pair of screens that show two people expressing sorrow, emphasizing the physical action of tears and contorted facial muscles that accompany the emotion. “Three Women” is a vertically-mounted video of gray, ghostly figures walking slowly towards the observer to break through an invisible boundary to become fully colored, only to return back into the gray distance.
As onlookers watch the subjects’ striking facial and body movements in slow-motion, they gradually focus on the mind’s inner contemplation as the videos become background scenery. It seems to be one of Viola’s intentions to allow a slower, more thoughtful train of thought.
Life and death are a consistent theme in Viola’s work as he explores the “metaphysical issues about our place in the world.” His subjects’ slowed-down movement amidst a constant backdrop emphasizes or reduces the perception of mortality.
“The Reflecting Pool,” a projection of Viola leaping into a lake, explores individual perception of the passage of time versus the environment. As his body freezes above the lake, the water continues to move, expressing the subjective perception of time.
Some of Viola’s work can be both hypnotizing and expectant. “Nine Attempts to Achieve Immortality” is a small black and white screen of Viola staring at the viewer, so still that he appears frozen. The stillness is sharply punctuated by ragged breathing through the surround-sound of the room, making “the technical apparatus” of natural phenomena “overwhelming to the viewer.”
“Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait” is exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through May 7, 2017. Admission is free.