By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
We're in the very darkest passageway in the exhibition space, the gloom broken only by one of his assistants aimlessly waving a flashlight between us. Filled with workers installing the show, and the whine of power tools, the hall echoes — almost all the new pieces are silent, so there's little soundproofing — and conversation is difficult. We move on to a classic wood-and-leather conference room with remote-controlled window blinds, a 1941 portrait of J. Paul by Armando Dreschler hanging at one end, and much brighter lighting. Though he's made his home in Long Beach for the past 20 years, Viola's skin remains pale — perhaps due to the genetic heritage of his English mother or years spent in video-editing cells. (He has a full eight-hour session booked later.) His round face, wispy goatee and wire-rim spectacles give him the curiously appropriate look of Eastern sage mixed with technology geek, and his manner likewise varies between measured deliberation and synapse-snapping enthusiasm.
Sound has always been a key element of Viola's work. He spent seven years alongside David Tudor in the Composers Inside Electronics collective in the 1970s, and the absence of sound is one of the most surprising features of "The Passions." I ask him about his descent into silence.
"It wasn't a decision I actually spent a lot of time on," he says. "It just intuitively became obvious to me that these works weren't about sound. Once I started moving from the stage of general interest in late-medieval/early-Renaissance panel painting and the passions and emotions, into the technology itself of these new LCD flat panels, I realized that the kind of thing I was after was something that emanates from a human being, from within; whereas in a lot of my earlier work I was always looking in this world — the outer world — for the evidence of things that emanate from within. In this case I was literally at the moment where things were arising and coming out, i.e., external expression, and I felt that sound would be in the way and might become redundant or illustrative. You could look through glass at somebody suffering, and you could have this incredible reaction. It transmits in that way: That's why those paintings work so well. And once I started working with the actors, I realized that someone screaming in silence, for example, is incredibly powerful: It just rings in your brain, and that's probably the loudest scream I've recorded — in that piece Silent Mountain."
The work to which Viola refers consists of two panels, hung side by side in vertical orientation. Chosen to grace most of the Getty's promotional material, including the inevitable lamppost banners, the diptych depicts a man and woman, dressed in nondescript T-shirts, building imperceptibly in synchronized but isolated agony to a crescendo of physical distortion, tracing the wavelike passage of a singular unutterable anguish through two utterly discrete bodies. Separate vessels, same juice. The connection visible only to the voyeur. Many of the pieces in "The Passions" convey a similar sense of unbridgeable isolation.
Walsh expounds on one such piece, The Quintet of the Astonished: "The National Gallery in London did a show of artists responding to works of art in their collection, and Bill, while he was here for the scholar year, had already thought about a piece that used a group of actors in an arrangement that was inspired by a Bosch painting.
"What is remarkable is that the figures were not directed as a group — meaning they were not told that there was something that they were supposed to be reacting to or enacting; instead each actor was given a range of emotions to go through during each take. And they were together, they were in fact pressed right together cheek by jowl, standing shoulder to shoulder, but they weren't actingtogether. They were making hand gestures and sort of giving comfort to one another, but that wasn't the point — they were each on their own private, separate emotional trajectories."
Pausing to watch the production unfold in its glacial tempo for a few minutes more, Walsh continues: "One nice thing about a show that takes plenty of time in front of each piece is that you also have plenty of time to let a lot of things play out in your head. This sounds dumb obvious, but it is true that there's hardly any just glancing and checking things off. You don't begin to get these pieces without some standing — or sitting — and thinking. And what you think about is hardly analytical — most people tend to go off on very interesting strings of association — whether it's a personal thing, their family, their own emotions or just 'Why is this piece so strange?' I think a lot of people will have the reaction 'It's strange because I'm treating it like a still — it's going a little too slowly for me to see action; what I see is a series of thousands of stills.' And if you're an art historian like me, used to looking at paintings, which really hold still — for centuries — this is a completely unnerving experience. I don't know how to fit this in my movie experience, either. I can sit in a movie theater and see slow motion and take it for what it is — but I always expect things to speed up again."