The Newport Harbor Art Museum has purchased "Theater of Memory," a key work by Bill Viola of Long Beach, widely regarded as an important video-installation artist, museum officials said this week. It will go on display Oct. 7.
The museum would not disclose the price of the 1985 piece, which prominently includes a dead, 35-foot-long tree. The officials said "Theater of Memory" is one of the major acquisitions the museum has made in preparation for its new home in Corona del Mar, expected to open in 1992. The museum will include rooms for permanent display of pieces from the museum's own collection, a luxury the Newport does not have now.
An "installation" is a work that a viewer walks through; the meanings of the piece have much to do with its interaction with its physical environment. The Viola work requires construction of a special 28-by-35-foot room.
"We are looking at several other major installations," Paul Schimmel, the museum's chief curator, said this week. "At the new museum, we will put aside two rooms to use for installation works that will be on view on a rotating basis."
Viola, a 37-year-old New York native whose installations were shown last year at the Museum of Modern Art, is represented in the collections of many major museums. Schimmel said he views "Theater of Memory" as one of the artist's two most important works (along with "Room for St. John of the Cross," from 1983) and Viola says that "Theater of Memory" is one of his own favorites.
From the branches of the tree in "Theater of Memory" hang 50 small lanterns that, as described by one critic, flicker in unison as if short-circuiting.
Meanwhile, a repeating, hourlong sequence of images is projected onto the rear wall of the room, showing mostly color images of faces and events.
These verge somewhat into focus but rarely become clear, and they are accompanied by sounds resembling static electricity.
The tree's root ball, dramatically lit, is full and tangled as if it had just been pulled from the ground. A fresh tree is selected whenever the piece is installed.
"I was fascinated to learn how the brain is a matrix of neurons firing little nerve pulses, and that these things were like the branches of a tree going out through the mind," the soft-spoken artist said by phone this week.
"Also, another image in my mind was of this tree I saw while hiking in the Sierras. There was this fallen giant with the trunk on the ground and the roots up in the air. This image of roots is something one sees everywhere in nature, in the shape of a lightening bolt, in the way a river looks from the air. . . . All these things stewed in my head for a while.
"Then, I saw it in a flash, the lights on the tree, the lights flickering."
The projected video imagery, he said, represents the way visual images play off of the brain. "They sort of submerge and break up and, when they hold the screen a while, they are grainy."
"There is a lot of clarity to 'Theater of Memory,' " Schimmel said. "It does not deal with a lot of outside literary influences. It is not dealing with art issues. It deals with dreams and memory."
To mount the piece, Schimmel said, the museum is looking for a dead tree with a sufficiently complete ball of roots and a adequately full mantle of curving branches.
Magnolia trees, Schimmel said, tend to fit the requirements.