Bill Viola

New York City

at James Cohan



The internationally acclaimed Bill Viola, admired for his massive, multiscreen cinematic installations, has never strayed far from his roots. The equipment has gotten more sophisticated, the installations more demandingly architectural, but his long-probed themes of individual identity, memory, the life cycle and the power of nature have remained intact since the 1970s.

His nine-work exhibition at Cohan included what can be called a landmark in the Viola canon. Pneuma—the title is a multipurpose Greek word that can refer to an individual soul or the entire life force of the universe—is a three-channel installation begun in 1994 and completed (at least for this iteration) in 2009. Filmed with both low-end, vintage surveillance equipment and an up-to-the-minute high-definition video camera, Pneuma is a grainy wave of barely perceptible images that washes over the gallery walls as if they were a seashore at midnight. Projected into three corners of a room, rather than centered on the walls, the installation requires very close attention if one is to decipher anything recognizable. I thought I saw a woman’s body in repose, a parking lot, a car in the rain, domestic scenes, and perhaps a kitchen and a child in a field. Ominous sounds suggest danger or maybe even death, but one is never quite sure.

The piece most closely associated in feeling and content (though not in size) to Pneuma is Poem B (The Guest House), 2006. For this installation, three midsize LCD flat panels were arranged on the wall; both flanking videos feature what may be the memories of the woman (played by Mary Pat Gleason) shown in the central panel. Her face registers ever deepening pain as she glances toward the right screen, where images of a woman in a shower, a child playing and a house burning suggest an unspecified tragedy. The face of an older man looking toward the bereaved woman fades in and out on the left screen, amid shots of turbulent surf (a drowning?). What might become melodramatic in other hands here appears aptly fragmented, mournful and uncontrolled.

The remaining videos, in both stark black-and-white and color, feature familiar motifs. Symbols of religious transformation appear several times in the form of people in various couplings being drenched with water or flooded with light. A sprawling old oak tree, filmed over a 24-hour period, stands as testimony to the endurance of the natural world (Old Oak [Study], 2005). On each of six postcard-size flat panels, a solitary performer enacts an emotion for the camera, in a work titled Small Saints (2008). Viola is best when he shrouds his images in mystery. His spiritual aspirations are, in good Buddhist fashion, most keenly felt when we’re not made too aware that he has them.

Photo: Bill Viola: Pneuma, 1994-2009, three-channel, black-and-white video projection; at James Cohan.