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Bill Viola

Doubt, dry spells and days in the desert

January 28, 2007|Alan Rifkin | Alan Rifkin is the author of "Signal Hill: Stories" and is completing a novel in the MFA creative writing program at Cal State Long Beach.

One saturday at his Signal Hill studio, where it's so quiet you can hear the oil derricks churn 200 yards away, Bill Viola is speaking to 20 undergraduates from Art Center. The weather outside is soft and smoggy, and the light is druggy-tropical--a good day for some students in Converse sneakers to plop down on pause before their real careers begin. And it's sort of beautiful, anyway, to hear Viola talk--this celebrated modern artist ("arguably the only video artist of whom it may be said that the label is not a contradiction in terms"--Wall Street Journal) who would be within his rights if all he did today was brag to the young, or wrap himself in gaudy royal thespian humility. Almost every story Viola can tell, after all, he's told some audience before.

But this is where Viola--tonsured, goateed and bespectacled, in plain dark T-shirt and plain dark overshirt, the Zen concessions to aging--might be compared to one of his videos: Something you might have seen or heard countless other times has suddenly become a little miraculous. Slumped against a stool, with a folder of notes he manages never to open, Viola sounds as if he's giving not just a talk, but something like the talk, the one the students should play back at crucial moments in later life . . . the Master Tape.

For instance, he informs them that creativity does not belong to them as artists: "It's a principle of the universe." He warns them that the voice within each of them must be protected and nurtured, so that it enters the world in an original, unguarded way. He cites Thomas Merton, the Upanishads, Marcel Proust, Primo Levi, the Dalai Lama and John Cage, plus a 14th century Japanese treatise on acting, which asserts that the artist's consciousness is a sea gull and the outer chaos is wind, and the right alignment of the two results in effortless flight.

"The honesty of that presence inside you," Viola says, "will determine the quality of your work--not ego, filling a market or filling a niche. There is something higher than art." And the students are paying very deep attention.

But first, a video. Because, you suddenly remember, Viola is somewhat famous for making videos. Guru is only an avocation. So he closes a skylight, and the studio goes dark for a screening of a 10-minute video from an installation titled "The Raft."

In it, a small crowd of urban strangers lingers in super slow-motion against a neutral backdrop, waiting for God knows what: probably a train or a bus. And for the first four or five minutes, how amazing life is just to watch--video makes voyeurs out of us all. We see the connective tissue of civility laid bare. The sidesteps and little reproaches as new bodies arrive on the scene. And all of this as composed as a Renaissance masterwork that just happens to move. Viola is a genius!

Or maybe it's too cheap a revelation, training a camera on the commonplace--although that could be almost enough. Would be enough, were it not for the added presence of something . . . premonitory? Fragile, maybe?

For there's the slightest quality of threat, shadowing the awareness of beauty, without which the beauty of life can't exist. And you remember now what you have always known: that one day this unseen enemy will have its say. In fact, if you were not so mesmerized by this slow-motion dream before you, you might feel the impulse to rise up from your seat, right now, and prevent what's coming.

Which is when you apprehend the early warning of a roar, an audio foreshock--a steady hiss that the actors can't yet hear, but that very gradually becomes horrifying, torrential, until from both left and right borders of the screen comes a devastating onslaught of water.

Now it requires some trust, or something worse, to keep watching. There's the first shock on the faces, the hands raised in futile defense, the bodies engulfed and overcome. In the center, a couple of women are driven down, this human tent collapsing at its pole, and yet--

Almost as part of the selfsame organism, the figures on the ends begin to rise, gaining strength, to form . . . barriers? The suggestion takes a long moment to confirm--you could be reading too much in. But no, it's true. You're watching spontaneous heroism. A defensive action at the wings.

Eventually, you halfway dare to imagine that the water is losing its force. Then that hint too is confirmed. Until, like phases of grief, there comes the ballet of bewilderment, and consolation, and tenuous embrace. And--fade.

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