Bill Viola’s “Tiny Deaths” and the Inversion of the Gallery Space

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Video artist Bill Viola’s oeuvre spans four decades and hundreds of works. Known best for his tableau video installations and huge scrim projection works, there is one “minor” work from 1993 that I think is his most intriguing and startling. Confronting it was a life-changing aesthetic event.

Tiny Deaths is an installation piece for a very darkened square room. As one enters, muted distorted voices become apparent, softly moaning and speaking unintelligible mantras from some undefinable space, as if unconnected to the room. The immediate effect is spooky as hell. The walls are soon found to be shimmering in very dark grey-scale projection, like the snow of an old television screen with the brightness and contrast at zero. But the projectors are hidden. As one walks about the dark you will come to notice a shadow—perhaps your own—is on the barely lit wall before you. But it stands still as you move; it is a phantom presence. You inspect it. The mutated voices are growing louder and illumination is bleeding rapidly into the space. Suddenly the sounds crescendo in a whoosh and there is a flash behind you. You turn but everything is the same: three barely shimmering walls. Your eyes once again must adjust. The voices murmur low. You look back at the shadow before you, which seems washed out by the intense flash. But it’s still there and growing dimmer. If you choose to concentrate upon it, over a period of a moment and a half or so you notice it has begun to take on details. There is a face. Eyes, a mouth. Clothes. It is glowing slightly brighter with a light that is somehow generated by the image itself and not from a projector. The details appear quicker. The voices are growing louder again. Suddenly a person in black and white in full detail appears before you but is gone in a flash before you discern fully any details.

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On reflection you discover that the light is acting two ways, as projection and reflected illumination, causing a “third realm” in the gallery—or the viewer’s mind—where the viewer(s) is a part of the work. You are gradually washed out by the light and equally disappear to the other patrons.

This is one of the greatest works of art I’ve ever experienced. You have to be there a while to get it. The flashes create a “liminal space” between the depicted persons and the spectators. You can view a two dimensional representation of a person on a wall or a living person standing beside you in the gallery space and the same fleeting effect occurs, but the latter is the “real” world—the world of mortal beings who grow old and die. The images could theoretically cycle through eternity.

Thus the work has a subtext about the visual preservation of the human form that photography grants but can never encompass. We in the gallery are the real subjects of the piece. Viola has reversed the arrow of signification on us, brilliantly.

Illumination in a spiritual sense. Viola has been a Buddhist for 40 years. Suddenly the frail human being appears from the nigredo of a roiling, dimly sparking wall, only to vanish in less than a second and return to darkness. We witness a sudden, finite drama on a two-dimensional surface that reflects its light onto our three dimension world. But like these trapped representations, we exist coursing along the dimension of time as well…The voices drifting through the room offer no condolence or condemnation. They are beyond legibility and meaning. And so is this mystery of existing as a representation of something beyond this four-dimensional and ceasing to inhabit it. It asks us: to what realm are we akin to these persons displayed upon the wall?

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