The Moving Portrait
by Bill Viola.
National Portrait Gallery,
Washington D.C., April 2017.
Although I enjoy looking at contemporary art, and seek it out whenever I can, I lack a memory map. It exists for me like my fantasy of what an infant’s fist looks like to him as it first drifts into view, before he has connected the feel of moving it or its physical appearance to his own nervous system and volitionsomething appearing from no known place, and then disappearing randomly. Different pieces I see in galleries, courtyards, or museum shows excite me. They sometimes move me deeply. But they don’t always accrue.
My latest encounter with Bill Viola took place on a Saturday in April. I’d traveled with friends to Washington, D.C., for the People’s Climate March. Just after the swarming mass of protesters had finally surrounded the White House and shouted and pounded our chests in unisona gesture I enjoyed but did not fully graspmy friends and I broke away and headed up F Street toward the oasis of the National Portrait Gallery and the unexpected Viola show called “The Moving Portrait.”
Let’s pause for a moment at “moving portrait.” It suggests several meanings: moving as in emotionally affecting; moving as in video not photography; moving as in, at the dawn of the film age, much was made of the phrase “moving picture” as part of its self-promotion; and then more generally moving, as in the motion of people, water, time, within the digital frames. The title also raises the question of how an artist creates a portrait in video instead of more traditionally in a painting, sketch, or photograph. The kind of “portrait” we expect from video is most typically a documentary profile or biography. Might an artist produce something else?
And what are the boundaries of the genre? Apparently that inquiry is in the air, for I also recently visited “Absent Friends,” an exhibit of the completely abstract “portraits” by Howard Hodgkin (19322017) that were on display in London at their National Portrait Gallery. Hodgkin’s colorful, mysterious abstractions offer glimpses into the intensely guarded passions of his intimacies and friendships. Yet his “portraits” do not include the representation of a single face, and only one or two contain even the suggestion of a body. They portray emotions deeply felt, framed compilations of layered paint that convey feelings he possesses about friends, or more exactly about friends who are in some sense absentone imagines from death, distance, rupture, the abstraction of his representation, or perhaps his own withdrawal into his studio while they sat reading in the next room.
Viola’s portraits are less radically intimate. Much that is personal may have informed them for himhe refers, for example, to the death of his parents affecting his workbut the pieces themselves, however intense the artist’s feelings might be, often come across as carefully orchestrated. They tend to be peopled by actors who have been coached to play specific roles with scripted movements.
They are portraits because they are of human subjects. In one aspect, they follow on Walker Evans’s subway photosimages created with a hidden camera aimed at an unknown occupant on the opposite side of the car. Viola doesn’t hide his camera, and he has at least some acquaintance with his subjects, yet they are anonymous to us as viewers. We take Evans’s seat. We are not invited to be interested in their biographies. We know nothing about their off-camera lives. Chris Marker’s 1983 classic film, Sans Soleil, so much of which is footage of anonymous individuals or crowds of people, also comes to mind, together with his professed interest in human banality. Marker’s exploration of banality focuses on what his lens can spontaneously capture; Viola studies the possibilities more intentionally, and sometimes prefers to arrange a spectacle.
Bill Viola, born in 1951, is one of our early video artists, discovering and beginning to experiment with the medium in the late 1960salmost the first moment it existed. Now, half a century later, his work (accomplished with the help of his wife, Kira Perov) is widely recognized. His website announces thirteen shows in nine countries for 2017, as well as ongoing exhibitions at venues like the Tate Modern. The National Portrait Gallery exhibit in Washington included ten pieces. I had time to watch four of those before we had to rush off to catch a plane.
Viola tends now to work in coloror in a mix of black-and-white and colorand in something slower than real time. If you glance too quickly at a particular screen, the image may seem static even though it is not. The several I chose to linger with lasted between ten and eighteen minutes apiece. His pace catches attention. The tension of looking and waiting heightens the viewer’s sense of time. Intentionally or not, it also interrupts the contemporary museum-crowd habit of glance and move, glance and move.
Unlike the most abstract minimalists in video and other media, who tend to make me think more than feel, or force me to work for subtle resonances, Viola is not cerebral or remote. He rewards waiting with movement, action, interaction, and sometimes with surprise or drama. He gives you faces, flesh, clothing, and bodies. Watching the work, I feel at moments haunted, melancholic, relieved, mystified, pleased, startled, and gratified. I even laugh.
The Portrait Gallery’s catalogue text, sincere in its platitudes, suggests Viola is interested in “the finite nature of human existence,” and that he has a “humanistic agenda.” (The former sounds a bit like a bad joke from Monty Python.) The catalogue also mentions the most famous biographical fact about himthat he almost drowned as a child, and that the sense of peace he experienced underwater at that moment was artistically formative. Suffice to say, water is often in Viola’s work.
But not in Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, the nineteen-minute work from 2013 that captured me on this visit. Imagine two black polished slabs of granite, each one tall and wide enough to comfortably offer background to a standing person. They are leaning a few feet apart against the gallery wall. Projected one onto each slab, running simultaneously, are two videos, life size at leastmaybe largerand in color. One is of a man, the other a woman, both seemingly in their seventies. His face makes me think of Goya. She, too, could be out of Goya, but looks more old-New-England to me. Both of them are naked. And while what we see is neither surprising nor shocking, as a viewer you are instantly reminded that few artists closely examine older bodies. Leonardo da Vinci has those wonderful, grotesque sketches of wretched old women. Lucian Freud contributes portraits of men and women to the genre. But Viola’s figures, delivered by lens not brush, are more matter-of-fact than those arriving courtesy of an artist’s rendering.
As the video commences, the couplewho may not be a couple appear grainy, indistinct, and, as I remember them, grayish. But before long they come into clear view and stand before us. They begin examining their own bodies, at first with just their fingers and eyes. Then, after a bit, turning on intense, small flashlights, they scrutinize their flesh millimeter by millimeter. They concentrate hard. As they work, they rotate slightly and you see their sides, buttocks, and portions of their backs. The voyeurism you experience is less for the view of their genitals than because their careful self-scrutiny feels like a bedroom act. When they finish, they stand facing forward and then fade back away.
Soon after I started watching, a playful narrator in my head renamed the video In Search of Melanomas. And certainly the health-obsessed absurdity of baby-boomers must have been somewhere in the artist’s mind. Coming from a climate march still greasy with sunblock, and identifying uncomfortably with this blinkered self-obsession, I also thought briefly of another title, Fiddling While Rome Burns. But my quips were superficial, partly uneasy defenses seeking pockets of air. The video evokes a flood of associations and emotions. It is poignant, oddly suspenseful, slightly frightening, immediate, stimulating, and layered with allusions.
Searching feels completely contemporary and at the same timelike a thumb pulling up and then releasing a deck of cardsit seems to flip back through the history of portraits mythic and mundane. Botticelli’s Venus, Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve, the staid white-haired couples painted by Frans Hals and Rembrandt, Elsa Dorfman’s super-sized Polaroid portraits: all flash quickly through my mind and superimpose themselves on the black granite slabs in my imagination. Yet even as I clothe the duo in art history, I am aware that I am contemplating two naked and graying simians.
It occurs to me that when these actors die, the granite together with its projections will become stele. Meanwhile, the nearly drowned child now tangles with something even more lethal than water. The flashlight finds no egress. Marcel Proust famously observed that we only take in our own aging when we see it on the faces of our contemporaries. This pair of seekers doesn’t have many years on me, and their flashlights scanning their mottled skin for an instant illuminate my own ever-hovering, injured demand: Not me, too?
Janna Malamud Smith's latest book is An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery. She is currently working on a book about fishing in Maine.