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Extremities 

The video passions of Bill Viola

Thursday, Jan 23 2003
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Photo by Kira Perov

I'M STANDING IN A PITCH-BLACK, CAVERNOUS room littered — for the time being — with dark, nebulous forms that must be dismantled packing crates. Taking up most of the facing wall is what appears to be an enormous backlit photographic transparency. Two women in vaguely Middle Eastern or Renaissance dress lie prone before some sort of elaborate box or altar, each lost in her own thoughts. They appear to be in mourning. Is this some kind of grave? Suddenly I detect a slight movement in one of the figures, and it becomes clear that this is actually an extremely slow-motion video. Abruptly, there is a commotion on the surface of the altar-thing, revealing it to be a well. The bleached, naked corpse of a drowned 20-something man miraculously rises straight up, lacy cascades of displaced water undulating to the ground. Slowly the women turn to witness this miraculous rebirth, their faces contorting into dozens of incremental expressions of amazement and bewilderment, joy and grief. Then, when the young man has reached his full height, their arms creep forward to catch his collapsing, still-lifeless body and wrap it in cloth. The screen goes dark for a moment, and the cycle begins again.

The illusion is broken as the crisp silhouette of an installation technician passes across the bottom of the screen, revealing the technology to be rear-projection of a resolution higher than I've ever experienced before. But I've seen enough anyway. Marrying state-of-the-art technology with a razor-sharp awareness of archetypal image-making as practiced by visual artists across the centuries; poised and teetering ambiguously between profoundly disturbing emotional extremes of loss and rejuvenation; hitting exact notes of formal aesthetic strengths, psychological depth and mystical spirituality, this heartbreaking 12-minute film can mean just one thing — Bill Viola has come to the Getty.

Well, not quite yet, actually — at the moment he's stuck on the 405 freeway, and I've got some time to look around and talk to the Getty Research Institute's Charles Salas as well as Getty director emeritus John Walsh, who has returned to curate "Bill Viola: The Passions," the largest group of contemporary artworks by a single artist the Getty has yet exhibited. Passing from the glaring, sunlit travertine expanses of the Getty Center's courtyard to the murky, grottolike enclosure of the half-completed installation in the Exhibitions Pavilion is a lot like entering one of Viola's celebrated video installations — disorienting at first, then, as your eyes begin to adjust, spooky and disconcerting. The overall design of the exhibit, which is composed of 13 works previously unseen in Los Angeles, has a similar dynamic, moving from fairly well-lit rooms with small, contained wall-pieces through progressively darker and larger chambers before reaching an overwhelming, immersive climax. Six Heads, 2000 (Tom Fitzpatrick)

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The first thing my eyes alight on is Six Heads, a small video panel — about 3 and a half feet tall and 2 across — fixed flat to the wall, displaying six head shots of the same aging actor going through a highly exaggerated range of emotional expressions. Considering the elaborate staging and technology, the piece has a strangely intimate and ephemeral feel, like a page torn from a Renaissance artist's sketchbook. It's also possessed with a creepy Picture of Dorian Gray vibe, these six little talking heads endlessly enacting their looped emotional contortions behind a plasma screen, without resolution.

The first Getty contemporary exhibit that will tour internationally — to the National Gallery in London, then the Munich State Paintings Collection — "The Passions" has been culled from 20 works created over the last two years, and was inspired by Viola's participation in the 1997-98 Getty Research Institute Scholar Year. The annual residential symposium brings together 25 to 30 professional academics from around the world (with a sprinkling of artists) to focus their individual and collective talents on a specific theme — usually some thorny, divisive aspect of current academic discourse. Emergence, 2002 (Weba Garretson, John Hay, Sarah Steben)

The theme of Viola's year, unsurprisingly, was "Representing the Passions." Says Salas, "I think the most impassioned area of disagreement — and this idea might have something to do with Bill's work — was the fundamental question about whether thinking about emotions is something that unites us or divides us. Do we think about emotions as something that we all share, that can be thought of as almost universal? We all get angry, we all get fearful, we all get joyful. Or do we think of them as essentially socially constructed, and varying from place to place and time to time? And in that case they act as a way of separating us one from another. We understand each other's thoughts — do we understand each other's emotions?"

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