Do Not Portray Being: I Portray Passing."
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,
Viola, Photo: by Herzhaft
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.
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
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
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."
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.
from "Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath" exhibition
at the Guggenheim Museum -
Soho, New York, January 18 to March 1997. Photo by Kira
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.
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.
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!
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".
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
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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"
“The Subject In History” by Michael Renov, Afterimage,
Summer 1989, Page 5
At “The Passing” back of the Voyager’s laser-disc
“Bill Viola” Fire, Water, Breath: The Solomon R. Guggenheim
Foundation, New York, 1997, exhibition brochure
Bill Viola, “Four Songs”, VHS, at Avery Fisher Media
Center at NYU Bobst Library.
Bill Viola, “Selected Works”, laser-disc, at Avery
Fisher Media Center at NYU Bobst Library.
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.