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"I Do Not Portray Being: I Portray Passing." 
The Passing

Essay by Bircan ÜNVER

When I read Montaigne's word "I do not portray being: I portray passing" in the "The Subject in History" article, it immediately associated in my mind with Bill Viola's -"The Passing" (1991). I have thought that no phrase can better explain Viola's abstract-essayistic documentary video than this phrase. Viola doesn't portray being or existentialism directly, even though he may be the only and central character in his video documentary, "The Passing."

Bill Viola, Photo: by Herzhaft

In the documentary, we see everything through his eyes, we imagine, or his mind, while he's being a restless sleeper in the night. He recalls his childhood mostly at the beach, (possibly)  with his grandmother and grandfather. Either he's coming out of the water or running and running on the sand then falling down.

This scene is also connected with the picture of his sitting at the desert, standing up, and then starting to walk, while his huge shadow synchronizes with the sound of his steps on the desert. First, we see his huge shadow walks steadily, and then gets faster. Then he runs in a great panic falling down (a very wide-angle shot) in the desert to accompany the sound of his steps, we hear his fearful voice, aaaaahhh!

When we put together these two different images, they bring out psychological level to his subconscious fear of "falling down" on the sands. When he is mature, the previous beach scene transforms to endless desert sands. Especially, his desert images are very effective. It gives tension and fear to the viewer. He exists there more with his shadow than his physical appearance. His shadow may represent his subconscious.

In the very beginning of "The Passing" are environmental sound effects of "night in the country". In a high ceiling room, eventually its under water, as an older woman is sitting on the chair in a white splendid white evening-gown, light comes over her head, like the sun, in space. The light and camera angle give very deep perspective from the light to the sitting woman. This is sort of installation by itself in "The Passing."

What does this scene mean? This woman's figure has an enormous place and effect in the artist's mind and world. How did I get this idea? Because of how he designed and created the scene with the marvelous white dress, in the deep perspective, the over her head exposed light, like the sun and in the background, "night in the country" environmental sounds. Her dress and background sound effects establish a presence to transmit to the viewer. At the same time, the deep perspective and overexposed light above her, surrounded her had, illuminate that she's the person who has given clarity to his mind, with its deeper perspective to his soul and how he sees and comprehends his surrounding as a spiritual dimension. Therefore, this combination of the visual elements and its conceptual value form all together function as an individual installation such as in art gallery.

Details from "Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath" exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum -
Soho, New York, January 18 to March 1997. Photo by Kira Perov

The next scene is extreme-close-up on the on eye, sleepy, heavy breathing taking effect in the dark. Image changes. Breathing continues... Then without visuals, we just hear his breathing. After this, one-eye is in the light on the screen. Abstract motion, gives the feeling, he's having a nightmare or is a restless sleeper. In "The Passing", Viola's own first image is his single eye. Each of his appearances creates another chapter in this concept. Later in the documentary, he is the key to building his story around his physical existence through his dream and psychology.

In black and white, mostly taking place during evening or night, scenes with different volumes of breathing sounds, environmental sounds, then fading to black, establishes Viola's and the documentary's soul. He also builds up his concept from a piece to the whole mosaic from one piece to a whole picture. For example, we think how did he use his image throughout the video? In this case, we see first his extreme close-up of a single eye blinking in partial light, then a single closed eye, and half of the screen is in the dark. Then the camera pans from one eye to the other eye, later two eyes together, his arm, his light and light-table, his clock, his book, a glass of water, his face with beard, his profile, his bedroom, his body, his legs, his hands, etc.

Deep breathing, an abstract form moving on the black spread out whole screen, and an unclear landscape, abstract images, recalling the human face and a young classic beauty, a woman face has become clear. This woman's image possibly represents his mother's young period or may be referring wisdom or goddess! She is unknown!

Immediately following, we see a newborn baby's face as full screen. The camera slowly zooms out to show the baby with cord, he's in his mother's embrace hug, possibly a nurse covers the baby's body and head with a blanket (the person is out of the frame). A young, beautiful woman, and after it, a newborn baby's image, create directly a universal concept of "woman and birth".

Next we have in the water, water sound effects (in the pool or in the sea). Of the beach, a small child is walking through the sand, and then running with his legs in the water with its sound effects. The white bed sheets are flying in the wind. They transform to different abstract faces or figure. Between the sheets, feet become clear and appear like swimming in the water, then pulling back the legs inside of the sheets and diving into the deep water or sea. After that the abstract figure changes to a flying man! Water sound effects and deep water, hearing and feeling that someone is treading water not drowning... A man surrounded with sheets in the water and he is coming out of the water. The water is foaming. Foaming water and a man become visible... A man is walking then running in the water, we see just his legs, and hearing sounds of water...

Another sequence is a man in the water with black beard and a white outfit. He is lying under the water like he’s in the womb. The sound is like a doctor listening to an embryo's heart, while it is still in the womb.

From the beginning of "The Passing" until the last scene, what I have just logged above, many scenes in very general frames, related to water. All these images reveal water and its created meaning are so important in this documentary and to its creator.

From a piece to a whole and its whole concept developed using similar images as earlier mention. These images are the main elements and characters of the video. Viola built up from the very beginning to the last scene by extension. An older woman, the night, as a restless sleeper, his eyes, face and his bedroom, his mother's young image, a newborn baby, water, his childhood, the beach, sand, trees, old bus, old an broken houses, historical architecture, train lights, car lit, roads, hospital rooms, the desert, interior of the church, a long pan in the house, his childhood room, under the water... In general, these are the main mosaics to build an essayistic and "new autobiographic" style documentary with its unique sound track.

Water (pool, river, sea, ocean); reflections on the water-drop, water-puddle, water-flow, surface of the pool, and any kind of water sound is one of the main elements in Bill Viola's more than twenty years of video arts.

His previous works, from his earlier work to "The Passing", and his current video installation exhibition "Fire, Water, Breath", at the Guggenheim Museum, Soho, Bill Viola is as a physical image, subject or character as well as spiritual and intellectual. This has been part of his art image and object.  The "Four Songs" has different chapters and ideas. There are "Junkyard Levitation", "Song of Innocence", "The Space Between The Teeth", and "Truth Through Mass Individuation". Except "Song of Innocence", Viola has framed and composed his images in different expressions, ideas and esthetics, than all other three of his works, since the very beginning of his video arts. This is the same in his other video art "Migration-1976". Bill Viola explains that "Living within the frame is living within experience," and he continues that "Art has to be part of one's daily life or it's not honest.

Bill Viola clearly questions his existential, comprehension of the time, creates his own visual elements and esthetics, and unfolds his subconscious as well as ours throughout his video documentary and installations. Especially in the "I do Not Know What It Is I Am Like" and "The Reflecting Pool", he has interpreted and transformed his understanding of "reflections", in nature and among animals.  In "The Passing", he reflects his restless soul, questions life and death in a subtle level as well as reflects his subconscious which somewhat connects with our subconscious too.

Bill Viola is also a very well known artist in the art world, internationally. Especially with his various "Installations and Videotapes". His selected biography; Bill Viola was born in New York, in 1951. He graduated with a BFA, Experimental Studios, College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, in New York. Viola also studied and performed with composer David Tudor and new-age music group, "Rainforest", between 1973-1980. In 1979, he videotaped mirages in the Sahara desert. His first major exhibition of video installations and videotapes presented Musee d'Art Moderne de La Ville de Paris in 1983. In 1994, he was invited by Ensemble Modern, Frankurt, to create a 35 mm film to accompany a live musical performance of "Deserts", a composition by Edgar Varese. His recent exhibition "Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath" at the Guggenheim in Soho, was also presented for the first time, at Chapelle Saint Louis de La Salpetriere, in Paris, in 1996.

Overall, Viola expands his ideas in "The Passing" in two different directions. One of them is related to movement like a car, car lights, roads, train, train lights, railroads, plane and its sound in the sky. As a sample, a few general frame from it: A Light, a car light from a far distance... A train light, the train is passing in front of the camera, another is coming behind it. Another scene in the night, the car's lights illuminate the trees and the roads. A landscape in the dark with trees, the trees are seen in the light, light is moving, the blurring light on the screen and at the roadside. Now, an invisible car is going, we just see a road and traffic sign. In the dark landscape, car lights move from a far distance. The cars are going in opposite directions in the night and there are stars in the sky.

As conclusion, all the above are braided together in the "passing". Another direction is related to being human, as a newborn baby in spite of it, before the old sick woman at the hospital, then the old woman her lying body on an open coffin during the funeral. These two sharp edges in terms of subject and visual indicate the beginning and ending of the lifeline. The baby is now coming and an older woman is passing.  At "The Passing" back of Voyager's laser-disk cover, "During the four years when Bill Viola was making 'The Passing', his first son was born and his mother died. But this work is so much more than a journal of human events." If we only evaluate this documentary, as a Viola's autobiography, we may easly miss its different conceptual layers. It has carried a personal essence, as well as a universal concept like birth, fear, passing, death...  Once again, the last scene in which he lies down under the water with his white shirt and pants like in his mother womb, this image creates a feeling of desiring to return to his mother womb. The combination of the images and sequences of the documentary have also formed another subtle concept which I consider is "reincarnation" or "transcendence".


1)       “The Subject In History” by Michael Renov, Afterimage, Summer 1989, Page 5
2)       At “The Passing” back of the Voyager’s laser-disc cover
3)       “Bill Viola” Fire, Water, Breath: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York, 1997, exhibition brochure
4)       Bill Viola, “Four Songs”, VHS, at Avery Fisher Media Center at NYU Bobst Library.
5)       Bill Viola, “Selected Works”, laser-disc, at Avery Fisher Media Center at NYU Bobst Library.
6)       Bill Viola, “I Do Not Know What It Is Am Like”, laser-disk, at Avery Fisher Media Center at NYU Bobst Library.

Bill Viola's Homepage

© Bircan Unver, "I Do Not Portray Being. I Portray Passing." - The Passing,  March 1997, New York.

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