While Viola could be called a “new media” artist, his works harken back to centuries-old artistic traditions—and often resemble moving paintings. The standout work of his current show is Inverted Birth (2014), a seven-minute opus whose poetic simplicity packs an emotional punch. The video opens with a half-nude man drenched in a black liquid that resembles oil and drips intermittently around him. As the drops gain frequency, one slowly realizes that they are actually falling upwards. Soon, torrents of liquid rush to the top of the screen, and the black substance shifts to red, then white, before finally becoming transparent (seeming to connote blood, milk, and water, respectively). As the the fluid flows over his body, the man holds his palms out in a gesture that looks both pained and ecstatic.
In another room, Viola presents four videos from his “Martyrs” series. Titled Earth Martyr, Water Martyr, Fire Martyr, and Air Martyr, each test a person’s body against the extremes of an element. In one, intense winds violently rock a hanging woman back and forth, while in another, flames rain around a seated man, threatening to envelop him. While the acts appear physically taxing, the performers silently and expressionlessly endure their torments, as though undergoing a spiritual ritual.