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The Quintet of Remembrance:
Video installation by Bill Viola at the Metropolitan

by Mehmet AYANOGLU

"Bill Viola is constantly searching for greater understanding of the spiritual heritage of humankind, looking beyond individual limitations toward a more collective, universal mind."

There are hundreds of exhibitions in New York City and one may have hard time choosing which ones are worth seeing. Among many interesting shows, Bill Viola's video installation stands out as a gifted one. Bill Viola is one of the pioneer video artists of our time, and he is on his way to becoming a modern American master as well. His current work is being displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art' the first acquisition of video art by the Department of Modern Arts at the museum.

Bill Viola has been working with this medium since early 70s. He started using moving image as an art form during his years at Syracuse University, where early video artists such as Nam June Paik, Peter Campus and Bruce Nauman schooled him. Bill Viola uses the most contemporary electronic technologies to create provocative videotapes and video sound installations that pursue an ancient theme, that is to say, the revelation of the layers of human consciousness. (Hamlin, 1999) Viola comments "artists must reengage with the stuff of metaphysics and transcendence, there is now a potential for reawakening it is so great in terms of art. You awake yourself first; it is the reason why you make work." (Kidel, 2002)

Bill Viola creates images and stories of his own experiences and observations and shows them to the audience. It seems that his intention is not pointing out to a simple matter. He is questioning and reminding of man's basic instincts and manners. As London suggests, Bill Viola is constantly searching for greater understanding of the spiritual heritage of humankind, looking beyond individual limitations toward a more collective, universal mind. (London, 1988)

It was widely argued if video works are true art forms. Obviously, video has become a major tool allowing the artists to work at many different levels and directions.

Art is one of the basic aspects of a thinking and existing mind. It holds a mirror to two different sides, to the consciousness of man and to the world. The outcome is a decoding of what is really happening to man and his environment. Everyone who watches Viola's works might have several different feelings, feelings that belong to man. The feelings, that we no more pay attention by the effects of the information over flow.

It is here that this work deserves more attention. The Quintet of Remembrance is a 16 min. color video installation without sound, and played in extended slow motion. There are 3 women and 2 men whose actions and expressions display sadness, anger, fear, sorrow and despair in a most compelling way. The video's two women and three men, pictured from the waist up, blink maybe half a dozen times throughout its span. One of the men starts out looking crashed, and eventually turns to the woman next to him with a look of resignation. Another face goes from showing some restraint but then looses it completely. The old woman, who is most active in the group considering the movement of her hands, is definitely filled with sorrow and distraught, as if her beloved sun is being hanged in front of her. All of them are in absolute horror. The slow motion projection displays the power and depth of each emotion. This group of people, probably a family, is placed as one of the familiar compositions of a painting.

The same sorts of feelings also capture one who is watching the projection. It looks like a painting considering the light and composition. But there is more than that: it is moving in slow motion, too slow compared to the pace outside of the room. Everything, outside of that dark room, is basically too fast.  As an example, one should pay attention to what Woody Allen had to say on being fast, "I am going to kill myself I should go to Paris and jump off the Eiffel Tower. I will be dead. You know, in fact, if I get the Concorde, I could be dead three hours earlier, which would be perfect.  Or wait a minute.  With the time change, I could be alive for six hours in New York but dead three hours in Paris.  I could get things done, and I could also be dead." Woody Allen (Gleick, 1999.)

It is as if Viola wants to stop, or at least as it is, slow down the time and accordingly change the space that we are in. It is no more a regular installation room in the museum. It is a sacred place, like a church or shrine. It is a place where we have to be silent, not where we start to talk. Whoever watches the projection feels the eloquent cry coming out of the moving image.

This work is inspired by the artist's study of late medieval and early Renaissance paintings, and the figures actions convey the intense emotions of the compositions that depicted in most paintings throughout mentioned eras. Bill Viola used high-speed 35mm film to capture the actual performance, which lasted approximately 60 seconds, but amazingly, in the video it extends to 16 minutes and 19 seconds.

There are certain characteristics of the Renaissance painting that are displayed for centuries on the walls of major museums around the world. Medieval painting is informative and educational. Viola notes that "in real old masters pictures, there is something odd and forced in the way the substance of a drama congeals into one single point in time. Of course, this flaw is balanced by the special leisure that we are given to think about the passing moment shown."(Viola, 2001)

This work at the Metropolitan Museum has characteristics that are monitoring our basic intuitions, feelings and desires. It is shown in a dark room; unfortunately not sound proof that there is a constant distraction of the museumgoers. Still, once you focused it is quite impressive.

Viola has a very deep sense of consciousness. He does not necessarily try to emphasize a feeling, just provide some clues about the certain matter that may be happening anytime, anywhere. It is up to the audience to decode whatever they think or feel. There is a universal feeling, that is to say, sorrow, which is implied in this work.

As soon as you step in the room, you are engulfed with this powerful feeling, and you understand and follow it in your own way, since it is very humane and natural. Viola comments that he hopes visitors will be given some glimpse of something that maybe they had not thought about it before, or had not seen it quite that way, and he is right. 

Bill Viola's video installation was open in Nov 2001 and will be contining until September 1, 2002 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

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