Bill Viola’s decades-spanning video art show in Guangzhou a spiritual pleasure that freezes the viewer to the spot

Giant screens at Redtory Museum of Contemporary Art play 24 of American video artist’s works that stretch time and emotions; while not a retrospective, they cover 66-year-old’s output from 1977 to 2014

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 7:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 7:06pm

You cannot get a more secular venue than a Soviet-style former canning factory that used to churn out the deliciously pungent Guangdong staple of fried dace and black beans. Yet, oddly, the 1950s industrial cluster in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou is somehow a fitting place to contemplate American artist Bill Viola’s spiritual images.

In 2009, the former Yingjinqian Canned Food Factory was turned into the Redtory Museum of Contemporary Art as the city government converted the industrial area in which it stands in the style of Beijing’s 798 Art District and Shenzhen’s OCT-Loft.

It lacks the magnificence of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where Viola’s “Martyrs” series was permanently installed in 2014. And it lacks the grandeur of the Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain or the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Italy, settings for Viola’s other solo exhibitions this year. But the recurring themes in his videos find special resonance at the former factory – regeneration, ablution (there’s not a hint of fish left now) and his signature slow-motion videos a dramatic contrast to the breakneck development beyond the museum walls.

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Viola, who is 66, suffers from ill health and could not make it to Guangzhou. Last month, his wife and collaborator, Kira Perov, came over to supervise the installation of 24 videos across four buildings together with David Elliott, the well-regarded British curator and writer who has joined the Redtory Museum as an adviser and senior curator.

Perov says the exhibition is not a comprehensive retrospective. But the range of videos – dating from 1977 to 2014 – does make this a major survey of an artist who has so profoundly elevated video to fine art.

Viola was filming well before digital media became a low-threshold, popular tool for visual artists. The oldest work in the exhibition is The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), and it shows a consistency of vision that he has sustained for four decades. Viola, filming himself, emerges from a forest to dive into a swimming pool. As he leaps, time freezes, and his body dissolves into thin air. Everything stays still but for the reflections on the water. And then he re-emerges, naked, from the pool.

The duality between death and birth, reality and illusion, and the use of water as a recurring metaphor were all there. Visually, however, the low-budget, low-resolution video is a far cry from his later works, which are big productions that employ actors in elaborate stage settings.

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The Fall into Paradise (2005) begins with a small dot of light on a dark screen that grows very slowly into a man and a woman clinging to each other while plunging in extreme slow motion through space. Suddenly, the silence is broken as they crash into a pool of water. There is no cheating by computer graphic. The two actors were aerial artists who really did drop into the water from a great height.

“So much is done by computer graphic now. We want to remind people of what you can achieve without it,” Perov says.

The monumental sizes of the screens – some measuring nearly six metres high – and the protracted suspense combine to freeze the audience in the spot, staring not into their smartphones but at the videos as if they are devotional objects.

The similarities between a religious experience and watching Viola’s videos are heightened by some of his subject matter. There is the reference to Adam and Eve in The Fall into Paradise. And in 2000, he began making his Passions series, which resemble the medieval and Renaissance Christian paintings he first came across as a young man in Italy. In fact, the exhibition in Florence earlier this year showed his videos side by side with the original historical paintings that became lasting influences.

His spiritual influence doesn’t just come from the West, however; Viola has studied Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi Muslim and Christian beliefs closely and is described by Perov as a humanist. The importance of the Christian frescoes he saw in Italy was as much about the belief system as the way artists such as Giotto made flat, visual images into architectural forms that could suck the viewer into a story.

The fundamental difference between Viola’s The Quintet of the Astonished (2000) and, say, Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, is of course movement. But the film moves so slowly that the video resembles a series of staged tableaux. Here, a group of five people stand close to each other with a neutral expression, and then something happens outside the frame to prompt a dramatic transformation in their faces and bodies as they react with different emotions in silence.

Viola once said that he first discovered the joy of slow motion in 1987 when he filmed a four-year-old’s birthday party. “When joy bursts onto a four-year-old’s face and all of this is slowed down to 16 per cent of its normal speed, those two seconds of burst of emotion are now 32 seconds,” he said.

The emotions are amplified, too, as he stretches time. Works such as the videos he made for Peter Sellars’ version of the Richard Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde for Opera Bastille in Paris combine the themes of love and passion, and death and rebirth, in such a way that they are almost draining to watch. Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension, both adapted from the opera production, are on show at the Redtory Museum in full surround-sound glory.

The Guangzhou museum has now included a version of Viola’s “Martyrs” series in its collection.

Flashier museums in Shanghai and Beijing may steal the limelight, but this low-profile institution directed by Alice Wong is reminding the rest of China that cultural ambitions are just as strong in the south.

Bill Viola: Selected Work 1977-2014, Redtory Museum of Contemporary Art, 128 No. 128, Yuancun Si Heng Road, Tianhe district, Guangzhou, Monday-Sunday 10.30am-9pm. Until March 27, 2018