By Taliesin Thomas, Cohort ’13
The early Christian philosopher Augustine of Hippo claimed that time was fundamentally unreal; for Augustine the only ‘real’ time was a single eternal present. Bill Viola’s retrospective (5 March – 21 July 2014) at the Grand Palais in Paris—a captivating exhibition that covers five decade’s of the artist’s work—presents a contemporary video version of the delusive nature of time and existence. This is the first exhibition dedicated to video art in the history of the Galeries nationales du Grand Palais.
Born in 1951 in the same era that saw the advent of broadcasting itself, Viola is considered the leading representative of video art. He is an impassioned pioneer of the medium: his work reveals metaphysical inquiry into fundamental human experiences, yet conveyed in moving analog. The effect of seeing Viola’s expanse of work together in such a substantial presentation feels akin to observing passages of living verse—the people rambled down a wooded path, the sun came up, a man died—yet expanded in such a way as to transcend the instrument of video. In Viola’s universe, human beings of all shapes and sizes illustrate the enduring rhythms of life.
The pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus once said that the world was an ever-living inferno: sea and earth are the ashes of this perpetual flame. Within the breadth of Viola’s art, one encounters the full cycle of birth through water and departure through burning. The aftermath of this journey is nothing short of sublime. Through the interrelation of the banal and lofty corners of our human essence as conveyed in Viola’s art, video demonstrates a transcendent consciousness. Each unique piece speaks to the next in a dialogue that reveals something about the world here and the one beyond. Stories come together and fall apart, much like the elusive nature of time itself. Within the ‘eternal’ of this retrospective Viola leaves us questioning what was, what is, and what might be. Viola’s elegant use of video suggests that time is actually a fable, a place both familiar and unrecognizable, once here and now gone in a single frame.