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Space Oddity through Art

Bill Viola’s Exploration of Space

By Charlotte Reine

New York-born artist Bill Viola creates installations that focus on film and sound. He uses flat panel video pieces and has even worked for concerts, operas, and sacred spaces. It can be said with quite some ease: he knows space.

On a bright sunny day in Montreal’s Old Port, I went “gallery hopping” with a close friend of mine. We came across DHC/ART’s foundation for contemporary art and their collaboration with Bill Viola. Immediately intrigued, we walked in and were instructed which route to follow that would best complement the value of the art exposed.

Entitled Naissance à Rebours (or “Inverted Birth,”) Viola aims to understand the process of awakening. In order to do so, he depicts different stages of awakening using transformation. However, there is more than meets the eye. What I immediately noticed was how he uses space to compliment his ideas and interpretations.

The first room we walked into had three flat screens. These flat screens were all the same size, however one of them was oriented as a portrait while the other two were landscape. All three scenes depicted two people walking: two men, two women, and the third was unable to decipher due to the fog in the image.

It was interesting to see how Viola plays with space and the meaning that he attaches to different forms of such space. For example, these videos are all timed accordingly and although they are similar in content, the subject matter of the video is different. Viola uses the interplaying of the videos to create a well-timed and spatially balanced scenario. To elaborate, space is not only appreciated within the room that the art is presented in, but also throughout and between the pieces themselves. For example, during the two mirroring videos of the pairs of women and men walking, when the two women are walking far apart, the two men are close together and vice versa. By doing this, Viola creates a sense of space that is almost three-dimensional: he playing with the space within the individual images but simultaneously creating a balanced space – when one space enlarges, the other shirks, therefore introducing a consistent space.

In the next room was a woman in distress. Her sadness pierced through the video and due to the combination of darkness in the room and her piercing face, the still video of her grabbed our attention.  Viola further explores space, yet in a different context entirely. Space here is emotionally dissected.  The space the audience is confined in is relative to how much emotion the woman is releasing.

The final room combines the components of space that the first room had and also those from the second, but with a third special element that is time. This scene depicts a man who seems to be covered in blood and in pain. He is shaking, stern, and serious. Slowly, however, the blood covering the man begins to rise up. It becomes evident that this video has been played backwards, creating a barrier of real vs. fake time and therefore sequence of events. It also becomes clear that what is on him is not blood, but is in fact a mixture of liquids that combined create this deathly illusion. These combination of liquids are used to represent and symbolize the essence of human life using materials such as earth, blood, milk, water, and air showing a movement from darkness to life.

Viola’s exposition brings the human experience and space to life. Although not its main focus, space is explored throughout the display and it is both appreciated and challenged. I urge you all in the Montreal area to check out this exposition! It runs until March 11, so you still have time! Furthermore, make sure to check out the L’Offre exhibition three doors down while you’re there (also presented by DHC/ART). 

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