In Bill Viola’s Videos, Bodies Battle Storms of Biblical Proportions

Bill Viola might be one of the most technically skilled video artists working today. His stunning films, usually shot in dramatic chiaroscuro lighting, once had a critic declare him to be a “Rembrandt for the video age.” Though the artist has been working for some forty years, he has yet to slow down. “Inverted Birth,” his latest solo show at James Cohan Gallery, presents six video pieces, all of them made since 2012, that pit the human body against nature’s most powerful forces.

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.

In Ancestors (2012), the show’s longest video, Viola moves from the studio to the outdoors, capturing a mother and son walking through a desert. They emerge ever so slowly from the hazy distance, before being overtaken by a dust storm. In the video’s final moments, the man places his hand on the woman’s shoulder—the only interaction between the two and a symbol, perhaps, of the connection their journey has forged.

Though Ancestors may be less fantastical than Viola’s other videos, all of the works share an interest in how the human body endures the most extreme conditions—and how such acts, in turn, shape our consciousnesses.

—Andrew Wagner


Inverted Birth” is on view at James Cohan Gallery, New York, Dec. 10, 2015–Jan. 30, 2016.

Follow James Cohan Gallery on Artsy.


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