Sometimes we meet modern art that is completely indecipherable. Museums and curators and other experts present this modern work as genius, yet upon first exposure, we might have the intense desire to scream, “But the emperor has no clothes!” That was my first reaction to the work of Bill Viola, currently on view at the Barnes Foundation.
I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola is the first exhibition by the Barnes focusing entirely on video art. Viola is an American video artist who has been on the scene since the early 1970s. This exhibition brings together a selection of the artist’s major works from 1976 to 2009.
My first impression upon viewing the various video installations was that they were pretentious and self-indulgent. Nor do I necessarily accept the word of so-called “experts” about the value of a piece of art. But there is more to a typical Barnes special exhibition than just exposing people to the art. There is an additional educational component, helping people understand why individual artists and their work are important. And it’s been my experience that the folks at the Barnes? They know what they’re doing.
So I read some of the materials about the artist and gave the work a second perusal. Slowly, my mind shifted, and understanding crept to the fore.
What made Viola’s work difficult for me to parse at first was that each piece was requiring me to reset my perceptual parameters, to rethink what my eyes were seeing, because what I thought I was seeing was not in fact what was being shown to me.
More to see
The piece where I first felt understanding creep in was Pneuma (1994/2009), a three-channel video projection on three walls on a continuous loop. Pneuma is an ancient Greek word with no exact modern equivalent. It can mean "soul or spirit," or "breath," or "life force." The piece has a contact field of visual noise, like static, into which a series of shadowy images appear and submerge, just barely outside the threshold of recognition. This all meant nothing to me until I realized how familiar this environment felt, how like a dreamscape: shadowy and indistinct, simultaneously frightening and comforting.
Less ethereal, but just as surreal, was Catherine’s Room (2001). This was influenced by the form of a predella on which altarpieces stand, many of which show scenes from a saint’s life in their small painted panels. This piece is a private view of a solitary woman who goes about a series of daily mundane rituals. Each panel represents a different time of day. A small window shows the branches of a tree in successive stages of its annual cycle. This shows another layer of time, transforming the scene from a record of one day into a larger view of a life bound to the cycles of nature.
All of the pieces play with time in one fashion or another. Frequently Viola uses extreme slow motion to force us to focus on details we might otherwise overlook. Or he might encourage us to find additional layers of significance in what might otherwise be dismissed as merely a mundane image.
Given that the medium is video, there are additional components to the exhibition that will require extra effort on the part of the viewer. The title piece, I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986), is 89 minutes long and screens daily, at specific times. Also, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Fabric Workshop will be showing Viola works from their permanent collections in conjunction with the Barnes exhibit. Check the Barnes website for details about these and other additional events.
Bill Viola’s work provides a lesson one should relearn periodically—don’t always trust your first impression when confronted with art that is new or unfamiliar. The work may seem opaque and indecipherable at first, but upon further reflection can yield satisfying levels of meaning and complexity.
What, When, Where
I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola. Through September 15, 2019, at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. (215) 278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org.
The Barnes is accessible to standard-size wheelchairs. Additional accommodations like ASL interpretation, assistive listening devices, and closed captioning can be made available. Visit online for more info.