Published in Istor, international history magazine, 5th year, nº 18, Fall 2004. CIDE, Mexico
Give us this day our daily ritual.
It was 1986, in the Museo del Prado, when the video-artist Bill Viola cried for the first time in front of a painting (1). A public action of private emotion, a privacy display. The singularity of an artist touched by art in a communion moment. Afterwards, when the artist leaves the museum and reaches the street, he returns to everyday's life and his crying is just a memory of the religious moment -a link- of artistic unity. Touching.
Beyond this singularity turn into story, there seems to be a religious impulse in every human being, certain desire for giving a sense to contingencies. Not in vain, many of the arguments of religion, science, philosophy and art try to prove that everything is one and the same thing. I cannot avoid to think about this as a paradise, as lost as every paradise, a perfect but still place, and perfection would be the illusion that we understand everything. Therefore, paradise would be the arrival point for human aspirations. Religion is based on the belief in something sacred, an absolute singularity worthy of veneration; faith's basic condition is the possibility of making contact with the sacred, and it aspires to be one with It. Such an aspiration occurs on a daily basis, in spite of dealing with singularity. We see it even in tiny gestures: in the scapular that appears below a shirt and in the sign of the cross a thief does with his first booty of the day. But we also see it in beauty, both in the touching beauty of the painting watched by Bill Viola and in the lovely way someone's foot rests besides us.
At first glance, Bill Viola's videos are about those trivial events that fill our days, but they are explicit mentions of western religious iconography. They are based on the Middle Ages and Renaissance painting (Masolino, Signorelli, Veermer), and they show scenes in extreme low-motion, thought to be watched as paintings. For example, he choosed the Outwitted Christ by Hieronymus Bosch as a model for The quintet of the astonishment, in which the characters carefully express extreme emotions: ecstasy, hysteria, pain. In Observance, where we see a horrified group of people, he recalls Four Apostles by Albrecht Dürer. His most recent series of works is entitled Passions, and it has traveled to Los Angeles, London and Munich. Now we can remember Viola crying in front of Goya in the museum and the circle will be complete, unity of universal art (touchstone of a misunderstood postmodernity) will be acheived. By the way, when an artist exhibits works, isn't he also trying to exhibit himself? Isn't he doing exactly the same when he sobs in public?
It seems to be a contradiction in Viola's work. If one of his points of departure is Renaissance, ethical and aesthetical ideal of which was to arouse and moderate passions, to make them habits for life (the origin of modern "good taste" (2)), why does he use it to show a Baroque catharsis, which purifies passions by making them excessive? Are we in a neo-baroque age, as Omar Calabrese says? Viola's approach to the sacred is through religious art produced between 13th and 16th centuries, although when he began his carreer in the 70's he thought that "classical" was a "foreign and irrelevant culture", because he considered himself as "a member of the avant-garde who should break up with tradition and create something new" (3). In his work there was an affection for the "rupture tradition" of modernity, and now there's a respect for more recent conciliation practices. But we still can ask for the aims and scopes of both behaviours.
If Viola's last video works are trying to make a synthesis, it surely isn't between the Renaissance and Baroque aesthetic patterns, but between art history (written with capital letters), daily life and his own work. It doesn't matter if this synthesis is considered as an intrinsic condition for art or as a legitimacy strategy. Art practices are usually developed from pre-existing codes which allow them to communicate and also from the creative use of those codes, between an horizon of expectations and certain heterodoxy. Maybe it could be better to make this bi-polar model more complex, beyond the respect to the rule (cult) and the systematic breaking (iconoclasty), because "ethical submission is introjective, religious. The heretical rebelliousness is projective, un-linking, analytical. And both supply each other" (4). Viola's nostalgia for unity -or at least for continuity- with the art of ancient times is as daily as anyone's religiousness, and it resorts to the same tool: the ritual, a set of rules (a law) or procedures repeated once and again.
Rules, with their own doses of obedience and irreverence, are present in artist's work, but also in the audience's tasks and their proximity to art. Many not-artists (and also artists) think that art still remains anchored to painting, understood as tradition. The paradox lies in the fact that we are more used to media as photography and video, since we consume them daily and even in a systematic way. Maybe that's why there still exists a residual resistance to place those media within the singularity named "art"; watching photos and videos everyday would then prevent from noticing their artifice -their art quality-, since the most extended perception routine still associates art with author as a specialized manufacture (at a given moment, photography pretended to be painting). During modernity and posmodernity, artistic "understanding" has basically been developed by training the sensibility and through a series of non-written rules, associated to the subjectivity of those initiated into them (another law). This non-rational and magic understanding evolved in parallel with a kind of art, the secret of which was not to be anything else than what it was. While artworks were prone to the silence of mere presence, many members of the audience got exasperated trying to find the hidden meaning.
Video comes to us as a by-product of photography in another continuity, both technical and conceptual, which starts precisely from Renaissance perspective. Technological image has developed a receptive routine because it hides its procedures and is more and more automatic. Once again, Bill Viola fits in with this history because, when he uses his camera, in certain way repeats the actions of other artists with their optical devices, such as perspective drawing machines and dark or estenopeic cameras. Also, it is not strange to assume that perspective representation and its derivatives are the most appropriate method to depict the sensitive world; from this idea some positions are born, like Jean Baudrillard's and Paul Virilio's, who have considered that we are aimed towards world's simulation or substitution, respectively.
Concerning the media derived from photography, there's another aspect worth of thinking: its not-iconic, but indicative nature. Our faith in technical image, our conviction about its documentary ability attached to the truth, lies on physical contact of the referent with the portrait. Light (divine) hits a photosensitive surface and creates image, while we use to forget the optical, chemical, magnetic and digital devices, and also the frame decisions, the use of materials and reproduction process (6). For most of us, a photo is only a click away from reality, and its fidelity degree to it remains a mistery, it doesn't matter which camera have we used or which lab has developed the film. What can we say about video-camera, able to tape and reproduce at the same time? Cameras are little sacred places ("portable temples", as Juan Luis Moraza says), guardians of the mistery of image, contact-with-the-world tools.
Bill Viola cries in front of Goya, inherits the Christian religiousness, tapes in his own image, culminates a so-called Renassaince desire of cinematographic mymesis. Down the street we all go by. Religious desire is an everyday thing. And the sacred, if it exists, lies on daily rituals.
(1) As James Walsh states in the article by Lourdes Gómez: Bill Viola uses the religious art from the past to explore emotions, in El País newspaper, Madrid, October 22nd, 2003.
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