Installment Plan

Electronic techno-art show is an on-again, off-again proposition

One of the key illusions in the works is the knife-thin edge around their openings. It minimizes the shadow that otherwise would reveal the true space and source of the light. As a result, the colors appear to hover. They can play other tricks on your eyes, too. When I moved from the red rectangle to the blue, a small reddish-lavender blob persisted as an after-image, floating up through the blue light. It may not have been "real." But it was true--as transcendental as the concentrated colors that stream through the stained-glass of great cathedral windows.

Viola's piece is just as serene, but deeply existential. Like Turrell's, it takes place in a darkened room. In it, Viola suspended one television screen a few inches above another about four feet off the ground. The two screens are face to face in the middle of a square wooden column that rises from floor to ceiling. The upper screen shows a slow-motion video of an old woman--barely moving--in bed with a breathing tube plugged into her neck. The lower screen runs a slow-motion loop of a newborn infant--eyes open, tongue working in and out of his mouth and head turning from side to side.

The woman's face reflects as a ghostly image on the glass of the screen holding the animated features of the baby's face. Her image comes and goes with the shifting highlights on the infant's cheeks--brightening against dark backgrounds, fading against light.

The woman is Viola's mother on the day she died; the infant is his son on the day he was born. But one doesn't need to know those things to feel the poignancy of the narrow gap separating life and death. Or to sense that the work represents more than that duality and its accompanying contradictions of time.

It is an eerie subject, and made even more so by Viola's use of technology to distance these intimate moments of being. He filmed the scenes, then ran the film on screens positioned to communicate with each other, rather than with viewers. In a sense, we're on the outside, looking in.

Many installationists rely on high-tech wizardry. New technologies provide quick ways to layer and mediate experiences. Yet few artists have Viola's gift for bringing that technology alive, and making it a tool of meditation.

What's apparent, and compelling, about Turrell's and Viola's works is that they could not have taken any other form. A film or a painting, sculpture, photograph or book wouldn't have brought them so vividly to life. Their eloquence and beauty convey all you need to know about why installation art exists and why this show shouldn't be missed.

"Blurring the Boundaries: Installation Art 1969-1996" runs through September 5 at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7380 East Second Street, Scottsdale. For more information call 480-994-2787. Tuesdays are free.

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