Bill Viola’s Buried Secrets and narrative installation | MARO PSYRRA



Bill Viola
The Greeting, 1995
Video/sound installation
Production still
Photo: Kira Perov

Photo published courtesy of the artist

In 1995 Bill Viola presented Buried Secrets in the 46th Biennale of Venice, representing his country in the international competition. The exhibition consisted of five consecutive video sound installations (Hall of Whispers, Interval, Presence, The Veiling) which cannot be seen separately, but constitute a whole. Besides, the visitor’s route inside the exhibition –and thus the route of his vision- is directed by the architectural structure of the U.S.A. pavilion; Bill Viola uses this structure to orchestrate his work.

In the first room he installed Hall of Whispers. The viewer would go down and cross a long and dark passage reminiscent of the roman catacombs. On both sides of the passage walls there was a projection of ten black and white videos, five on each side, which presented faces of men and women. Their mouths were gagged with white cloths and they kept their eyes closed. They struggled to talk, but –as their mouths were shut- the only thing they could vocalize was a sum of messed and ambiguous sounds that composed a choir of agony and despair, thus enhancing the asphyxiating atmosphere of the narrow corridor.

In the second room the visitor would enter another world. Interval was installed in a small dark room. Two big projectors, one facing the other, presented two separate videos. In the first one, a naked man in the bath, Bill Viola himself, using a special dispenser for the water and clean towels, was cleaning his body methodically with slow, almost idle movements. The second video presented a mass of interchanging violent pictures. The same man trying to stand up; sometimes he was getting washed away by a current of water and sometimes  he was facing fire flames.

Then there was Presence, a six-channel sound installation in the rotunda of the American pavilion, where there was a complete lack of image; the only thing in the room was speakers casting sounds: Voices still unclear. Children’s laughter, “serious” adult talk and old men mumble, all messed up, like the sounds coming to the ears of someone shut in a room, with no view to the world outside whatsoever.

After the sound installation, the visitor was lead to Veiling. There were eleven consecutive veils from thin transparent cloth, hanging from the ceiling of the room, leaving a space of 60 cm between them. Two projectors, one in front of the first veil and one behind the last one projected on their surface the image of a man and a woman walking, meeting and drifting apart. The moving images passed through the transparent textiles onto the surfaces of the veils behind. On the middle (the sixth) veil the two moving images – faint, at that point- would meet and become one, and then drift apart.

The last and biggest dark room had one video only, the Greeting. It is a 10 minute color video shot in extreme slow-motion, which presents the meeting of three women. Two women, a middle aged blonde and a senior meet in a rather dark internal yard with tall buildings at both sides. A young pregnant woman comes towards them; apparently she already knows the senior lady. As she comes closer, she shows more and more affection; she hugs and kisses her. The pregnant woman leans towards the senior woman, ignoring the other and whispers a “secret” in her ear. It is the only words we can hear clearly: “Can you help me? I need to speak to you right away”, with the first phrase “Can you help me” sounding louder. The blond woman in the middle seems thoughtful; she turns to the old lady that answers, smiles, and helps her join the conversation. They become acquainted with each other and the video ends with the three women talking. The viewers can’t make out what they’re saying because their talks are smothered by the loud sound of the wind. While this meeting takes place, at the same time, in the entrance of the yard, lit by an external light, there are men talking.

Based on the sequence of the video-installations and the things that take place, we make the assumption that the work is a narrative installation1. Bill Viola creates an artwork with an evident narrative structure, based on space, time (or times), action, plot. The five video installations (which act like separate narrations) constitute and articulate the final “narration”. Therefore, as Viola’s installations produce forms of representation of the world2, they bring together two “elements” that comprise every narration: the sequence of events (story) and the reason that makes it happen (fiction)3. So, what we have is a narrated sequence of events. This means basically that a) at least two people are in a state of communication, the one who narrates and the one who hears/ sees the narrator, b) that the narration is based on temporality, that is, the time of the natural sequence of events that take place and the time sequence of the signs that represent these events (Ordre, Duree, Frequence), c) that the past actionsor incidents “settle” into our present and are presented based on a mental sequence that holds the story together and d)that the time of the narration is perceived as space: it is the space that the installation occupies in the exhibition.

Based on all the above, as we enter the space/text of the exhibition we have to ask ourselves: “What is the story that Viola narrates?” and “How did the video artist narrate the fiction in the show4 of the 46th Biennale?”.

Marilyn Zeitlin5, who focused on Viola’s work and edited the exhibiton catalogue, pointed out that what we have before our eyes is a “narrative trip in the natural and spiritual world”. However wide that definition is, it gives us a specific orientation towards our research. In fact, the title of the exhibition Buried Secrets makes a reference to burial and the installation The Veiling resonates the expression “beyond the veil” which means “beyond the grave”. Moreover, on the first page of his notes Bill Viola gives the key to the interpretation of his work, by citing the Persian mystic Rumi6: “When the seeds are buried into the dark earth, their innermost secrets turn into a blossomed garden”7. This excerpt affirms that the main axon of Viola’s fabula is Death and Renaissance. Like a hierophant that masters the meaning of Life, Death and Renaissance, Viola introduces the viewer into a place of initiation, where wandering into the work of the artist “equals” an initiation procedure during which the buried secrets will be revealed and will “blossom” in his heart. So, the artist acts like an “enlightened shaman” that masters the “secrets” and organizes ritualistically the “sacred space” of initiation, while his work acts like a way (time and space at the same time) of initiation that obliges the visitors8 to undergo a series of “trials” until they come out like neophytes in the “truth” at the end of their course. So, when it comes to Viola’s “narration”, the story is about the procedure of initiation; the fiction that materializes his story refers to the realm of initiative symbols that have been developed by powerful oriental religious traditions and also to the “magic” or “fascinating” use of contemporary technology –that befits his occidental roots. At the same time the narration imposes a sacred route into a sanctified mystical space. Viola masters a “basic religious truth”: the sacred space is never “chosen” by man, but the space is “revealed” to him one way or another9. And the artist takes the role of the hierophant.

The idea that in this particular exhibition Viola organizes a ritualistic space/time of initiation and a certain path to apocalyptic enlightenment is affirmed by a series of facts relevant to the construction the work; it is a fact that holy spaces are being “fabricated” according to traditional rules that refer to an archetype relevant to the stages of initiation.

First of all, the viewers are obliged to “go down” three steps and enter the dark room of Hall of Whispers. Their descent to a dark space where “chthonic” faces -coming from a world of spirits, silence and the phobic incomprehension - struggle to talk to them is the first thing that they come across during their initiation process. Here the viewers have to realize that in a space of initiation “we mustn’t see reality the way we are” – as Paul Eluard said. The descent into darkness marks the beginning of the initiation process and it is the first trial, the first confrontation with the self. Then the initiants have to enter, literally and metaphorically, into the expiatory phase. In Interval we see the expiation of the body with a Persian vessel of expiation10 and the metaphorical battle of the initiants' soul with two purgative elements: water and fire11. The filthy soul fights with the elements of the good and after going through this ordeal it comes out absolutely clean and purified. The reborn and fresh initiants, through the effect of hedonic and cool water12 and the flaming and insatiable fire13 are ready to become lovers and attract the “nymphs”.

They come into Presence in a world where the image stimulants are absent and the only thing they can hear is sounds that seem like an invitation to a new life. They are in the centre of the sanctuary and ritual of initiation (and in the middle of the exhibition). They are between two worlds. Moving ahead they come across Veiling with the 11 hanging veils. The veil covers and discloses what is behind it. The transparency of the veils let the projected pictures of man and woman meet on the middle veil. It is a revealing ritualistic fusion/copulation, a holy union where the mystical seed is buried to be born all new again, to remind us that “when seeds are buried into the dark earth, their inner secrets turn into a blossomed garden”. Illuminated by the apocalyptic experience, when the initiants move on to the Greeting, they come back into the real word particularly sensitized towards the female element and its relation to fertility. This is why the three different ages of the women feature on the foreground (while the male figures are driven outside). The words that reverberate in the mouth of the pregnant woman reaching the ear of the senior lady and articulating the “secret” are about the participation of the female element into the question “can you help me? I need to talk to you right away”. This secret that is tied up with fertility and the impending birth unites the women that keep the secret of birth and thus the hope of the eternal renaissance.

In Viola’s work the flow of time that appears to all of us like a logical necessity and imposes itself upon the order of reason, is disrupted. All the initiative procedure is realized in an extreme slow motion that feels like levitation, flight, purification. Thus a new dialectic of duration is created, a different relation of time to reality; as this relation is “situated between the objective and subjective knowledge”14 it dynamically serves the idea of the initiative release from the bonds of reason and the patience-requiring conquest of the initiative completeness.

(translation by Christina Grammatikopoulou)

1 For narrative installation see Rush, Michael, New Media in Late 20th Century Art, Thames and Hudson, London 1999, pp. 107-111

2 In sociolinguistics narration is a special kind of logos, that is, a special kind of representation of the world through language (the other two are description and argumentation).

3 The french narrative theorist J. Jeunet suggests a three-part classification of “narration” in a) History (histoire). It is the signified, that is, the narration of the fact that we could state in a summary. b) Narrative (recit). It is the signifier, the “text” itself (visual, written or spoken) that articulates the events. c) Narration. It is the act, or else, the procedure of narrating a story. It is the way of expressing the “text” through its derivative, that is, the narrative text. It is the articulation/presentation.

4 Iles, Chrissie, “Bill Viola: Venice Biennale 1995”, Art Journal, Vol. 54, No. 4, Video Art. (Winter, 1995), pp. 97-99

5 Zeitlin, Marilyn (ed.), Bill Viola: Buried Secrets (exh. cat.). Texts by Bill Viola, Carl Haenlein, Susie Kalil and Marilyn Zeitlin. Tempe: Arizona State University Art Museum, 1996, σελ. 16

6 The Persian mystical poet Jalaluddin Rumi, who influenced the artist, formulated during the 13th century his thoughts about microcosm and macrocosm and was particularly interested in the relation of earthly and heavenly life.

7 Zeitlin, Marilyn (ed.), Bill Viola: Buried Secrets (exh. cat.), op.cit., p. 16

8 Eliade Mircea, Πραγματεία πάνω στην Ιστορία των Θρησκειών, μτφρ. Έλσης Τσούτη, εκδ. Ι. Χατζηνικολή, Αθήνα 1981, σ. 345: «το ιερό εκδηλώνεται σύμφωνα με τους νόμους μιας διαλεκτικής καθαρά προσωπικής κι η εκδήλωσή του επιβάλλεται στον άνθρωπο έξωθεν. Η υπόθεση ότι η «εκλογή» των ιερών χώρων έχει αφεθεί στον άνθρωπο, σημαίνει ταυτόχρονα ότι γίνεται ακατάληπτη η συνοχή των ιερών χώρων.»

9 Van der Leeuw, Phanomenologie der Religion, Tubingen, 1933, σ.375

10 Edward B. Tylor, La civilization primitive, p.562.

11 Agnis is the deity of fire in the hindu tradition and Ignis is fire in Latin.

12 Gaston Bachelard, Water and dreams, p.150.

13 Fire as a cosmic element has the traits of a primordial sexuality relevant to fertility and eugenism. See, Gaston Bachelard, The psychoanalysis of fire, p.85. J. G. Frazer, The golden bough, v.3, p.474 and Karl Jung, Libido.

14 Gaston Bachelard , The dialectic of duration, Athens 1994, p.47.