BILL VIOLA: Video Black – The Mortality of the Image (excerpts) (1990)

Bill Viola, Fire Woman, 2005. Still images.

Bill Viola, Stills from Fire Woman, 2005.

Somewhere there is a video camera that has not been shut off for the last twenty years. Its rigid, unblinking eye has tirelessly been scanning a parking lot someplace, silent witness to all the comings and goings of the past two decades. It has seen the same man get out of his car each morning, his body gradually sagging, less resistant to gravity, as his gait imperceptibly slows over the intervening time. It has seen the unbroken procession of days and nights, the cyclic changes in the sun and moon, the growth of trees, and the perpetual variations of weather with the accumulation of its harsh marks. It has seen the parade of fashion in car design and clothing, and witnessed the evidences of human intentions and impulses in the sudden material alterations of the physical landscape.

However, this perpetual observer has no stories to tell, no store of wisdom, no knowledge of grand patterns. Locked within a great immutable Now, it has no sense of past and future. Without a memory to give it a life, events flicker across its image surface with only a split second to linger as afterimages, disappearing forever without a trace. Today it will be shut off, the world abruptly ending in an arbitrary cutoff point as all endings are, and a new model camera installed. In another society, this camera, with its accumulated existence, would be graduated to an object of power to be venerated and reciprocated. In the least, the tubes of old cameras such as this should be installed in a shrine with the hope that someday some future technology could coax from their surface the subtle residue of a lifetime’s experience. Today’s event will pass with barely a notice.

The concept that objects can acquire power, that a human being’s inner thoughts and impulses can have a residual effect on the outer physical world, is of archaic origin. Reflecting a time when the material elements of nature were effused with Mind or spirit, this timeless world view is confined today to vague subjective sensations, often described as emotional, of empathy and the awareness of a ‘larger-than-me’ order that often mark encounters with the remnants of the natural landscape. The evolution in cultural memory (history) of the assumed location of the artificial image describes a progressive emergence from within the heart and mind of the individual outward to its current residence as a depiction of the external world.

Sacred art in the Western tradition evokes images of the gold-leatfed painted panels of the Middle Ages, a time when Asian and European art shared a common ground. One of the most striking things about medieval religious art is that the landscape (for us the materia prima, the physical, hard ‘real’ stuff of the world) appears as a insignificant element, a backdrop subordinate to the religious vision or epiphany. Space is a radiant gold and is substantially less real than the spiritual reality (scene or events) depicted. From our point of view, the inner and outer worlds have reversed their roles.

Images become icons either through content alone, i.e., images that were commissioned to perform such roles or, more importantly, through the cumulative power of use, itself a reaffirmation of an image’s intrinsic power. It is as if the continuous act of worship/veneration leaves a residue that builds up over the years.

Unlike the consumption-oriented mass media images of contemporary culture, icons maintain their relevance by remaining the same for centuries. Giving from to eternal realities, their affinity is toward the eternal themselves.

viola 2

Bill Viola, Stills from Tristan’s Ascension, 2005.

The Temporal Image

In the dialog between viewer and image, there were now three entities created, where formerly there were two, or possibly even one. Since previously most  images were diagrammatic and/or emblematic representations (i.e., thoroughly two-dimensional), their use as a sacred vehicle was to achieve a sense of union between the viewer and the divinity. The image as to be taken to heart within the individual, with the concurrent loss of self-identity, so common to religious experience, forming the single image of ‘self/deity’. It was an evocation rather than a description (the picture evoked the god or goddess within, not described him of her without).

With the new identification of the viewer with the painter rather than the sacred object, however, came the placement of both of them relative to a third entity, the nearby physical object(s), or subject of the painting, and along with it possibly the inauguration of the process of encroachment of the individual ego (i.e., the artists’s) onto the image in the visual arts.

The Temporary Image

More than 400 years after ‘the Fall’ of the image, it was no coincidence that, just when the original powerful realization of the optical image was transforming itself into the physical form of the photographic picture machine, the painters were advancing their discoveries of light and image as palpable substances independent of the object. The physical act of rendering the visual world as-the-eye-sees-it was being taken out of their hands, while for their part, the image had once again diverged to begin a slow return to dematerialization and internalization.

The inevitable mechanization of the image made possible two things that led to its liberation for the prison of frozen time: machine nature introduced automated repeatability, and advances in the material sciences made possible the fixing of light impressions on a durable surface, both necessary for the advent of the first moving pictures. It is important to note that the invention of photography was not the invention of camera, but that of the process of fixing an image onto a plate.

Still, the question remains, exactly what is this movement in the moving image? Clearly it is more than the frenetic animation of bodies.

The root of the cinematic process remained the still picture, but images now had behavior, and the entire phenomenon began to resemble less the material objects depicted and more the process of the mind that was moving them.

A thought is a function of time, a pattern of growth, and not the ‘thing’ than the lens of the printed word seems to objectify. It is more like a cloud than a rock, although its effects can be just as long lasting as a block of stone, and its aging subject to the similar process of destructive erosion and constructive edification. Duration is the medium that makes thought possible, therefore duration is to consciousness as light is to the eye.

Time itself has become the materia prima of the act of the moving image. The ‘unsticking’ of the image in time has been a gradual process, and its effects are permeating art and culture in the late twentieth century, moving beyond the domain of conventional cinematic form and serving to dislodge the dominant compositional model of the dramatic narrative (based on Aristotle’s theories of 400 B.C.). This chapter in art history will potentially be as significant as the introduction of three-dimensional space originally was to painting.

The physical apparatus of the moving image necessitates its existence as a primarily mental phenomenon. The viewer sees only one image at a time in the case of film and, more extreme, only the decay trace of a single moving point of light in video. In either case, the whole does not exist (except in a dormant state coiled up in the can or tape box), and therefore can only reside in the mind of the person who has seen it, to be periodically revived through their memory. Conceptual and physical movement become equal, experience becomes a language, and an odd sort of concreteness emerges from the highly abstract, metaphysical nature of the medium.


Bill Viola, Still from The Raft, 2004.

The Last Image

In many countries throughout the world, black is the color of mourning. Echoing this ineffable finality, in European culture black is considered to be outside color, the condition of the ‘absence of light’. The focal point for black in our lives is the pupil of the eye, portal to the tiny chamber in center of the eyeball where darkness is necessary to resolve the original parent of the artificial image.

When the means of the artistic creation of images are the laws of optics and the properties of light, and the focus is the human eye, it was only a matter of time before someone thought to hold up a mirror. The ideal mirror, around since the beginning of humankind, is the black background of the pupil of the eye. There is a natural human propensity to want to stare into the eye of another or, by extension of oneself, a desire to see seeing itself, as if the straining to see inside the little black center of the eye will reveal not only the secrets of the other, but of the totality of human vision. After all, the pupil is the boundary, and veil, to both internal and external vision.

Bill Viola,  1990

viola ascencion

Bill Viola, Still from Ascension, 2000.

To see the full video CLICK HERE


to read the VIOLA essay full version in pdf click here

originally  published in:  doug hall and sally fifer, illuminating video: an essential guide to video art,  aperture, san francisco, 1990

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