Visual Arts

Video Village

Deposit all linear thinking at the shadowy portals of "Buried Secrets," Bill Viola's five-part, multimedia installation at ASU Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center. That's because this potent visual and auditory experience is consciously designed to be understood on a purely intuitive plane, a level on which just about every sensate being with more than three simultaneously firing neurons can easily operate.

Created specifically as the U.S. entry for the 100th anniversary of the highly touted and politically tumultuous Venice Biennale--the famed, world-class art exhibition--"Buried Secrets" has come home to Tempe. It is here that Marilyn Zeitlin, director of ASU Art Museum, originally conceived of submitting "Buried Secrets" as the U.S. entry. Only once before in the history of this volatile event has a university museum been chosen to curate the U.S. submission.

Having originally seen this work through the haze of jet lag during the circuslike vernissages (openings) of the Biennale last June, I can assure you that the Valley's version of this haunting video installation is far superior to its cramped Venetian counterpart. A work as contemplative as this doesn't show best among throngs of jostling thousands, waiting impatiently in long lines to jockey their way through physical space intended for 25 bodies at a time. The relative serenity local viewers can enjoy while experiencing Viola's work is a passport to an added dimension that somehow got lost in the crowd in Venice.

For the disquieted (including one friend who, after emerging from the final segment, walked up to me and asked in bewilderment, "What the hell was that all about?"), it helps to know in advance that "Buried Secrets" was inspired by a poetic passage from 13th-century Persian mystic and poet Rumi: "When seeds are buried in the dark earth, their inward secrets become the flourishing garden." It also doesn't hurt to be aware that, for the past 25 years, its California-based creator has been seriously concerned with themes of time, communication, memory and polarity, as well as the essential nature of mind and man's transcendental quest for meaning outside himself. But don't let that scare you.

In conversation, the well-read and well-traveled Bill Viola will casually refer to mystics and visionary poets like Rumi, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Teresa of Avila, William Blake and Rainer Maria Rilke as if they were next-door neighbors. In fact, Viola spent a year in Japan as artist-in-residence at Sony Corporation's Atsugi Laboratories, during which time he studied Zen Buddhist philosophy and meditation with shiatsu master Shuya Abe and Zen priest and painter Daien Tanaka; he's also wandered extensively through the Himalayas to investigate religious art and ritual in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

Against this biographical backdrop, it is easier to append whatever significance you may subjectively choose to Viola's womblike video environment. Consisting of five separate experiences, the work begins with the entrance into "Hall of Whispers," a long, very dark space in which the viewer runs a cathode-tube gauntlet of gagged, bodiless heads struggling to speak while floating in forbidding blackness. Their muffled sounds recall the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel and, on a more immediate level, the frustration of failed communication and thwarted connection.

From there, one wanders into "The Veiling," an ethereal series of gauzy, transparent sheets that appears to levitate in space. The sheets individually and collectively catch two opposing projected images of a man and a woman walking toward each other--their bodies ultimately melting into one--interspersed with images oftree branches. The Islamic concept of the 10,000 veils of Allah was the inspiration for "The Veiling," according to the artist, who says he feels that the piece isthe most elusive of the five. "The veils," explains Viola, "are those things which are placed between you and ultimate reality, that pure, divine existence which we cannot possibly perceive directly or encounter directly in this world, since we would be completely overwhelmed by it."

A dimly lighted antechamber at the end of "The Veiling" leads to a stairway in which the purely auditory "Presence" forces one to stop and listen to sensually whispered "secrets" against the insistent whoosh of a human heartbeat and soft, regular breathing amplified to gale force. These cryptic sounds magically concentrate and puddle on a landing halfway up the stairs, then reverberate against the walls, only to be forgotten moments later. The area in which "Presence" is staged takes on a strange, hallucinatory quality, although there is no visual component to this piece.

The conspiratorial intimacy of "Presence" shatters in the frenetic presentation of "Interval," the next sequence. Against one wall, a video projection of a man in an antiseptic, white-tiled shower slowly, meditatively washes every part of his naked body, reaching into a bucket occasionally for water. On the opposite wall, when the man's image is not being projected, one sees chaotic, suffocating close-ups of turbulent water and engulfing fire. These contrasting images of cleansing, purging and purification switch back and forth at an ever-quickening pace, trading off like some manic drum riff, finally coalescing into one continual cadence. For me, during the most intense interchange, the sound of an oncoming locomotive emerged while Ifelt like my head was being forcibly held underwater.

The viewer is compelled to decelerate by Viola's final video segment, "The Greeting." While Viola usually does not make references to other art in his work, his admitted unconscious attraction to a classical painting, "Visitation" by Mannerist painter Jacopo da Pontormo, was the basis for this single-channel video. "I had a color Xerox of that painting for months in my studio," says the artist. "I was just fascinated with the image and then put it up on the wall, which I don't do very often. I don't have a wall full of images. It was very curious."

In "The Greeting," Viola has taken approximately 45 seconds of footage and stretches both audio and video portions over more than 12 minutes. The video opens with two women speaking to each other. The tortuously protracted imagery and sound allow the viewer to take in every detail of the characters in their theatrical, de Chiricoesque setting: the Greek key design of one woman's skirt; the other's purse; the tiny, reflected image of two figures meeting in an archway in the distant background; the ominous, dusky light of neither day nor night illuminating the skewed buildings behind the women. A third, patently pregnant woman joins the duo, kissing and greeting the older woman in the scenario. The pregnant woman bends to whisper in her ear, while the third woman's face goes through a repertoire of emotional responses to the exchange.

Even straining to listen for what the pregnant woman is saying, I can barely make out her exact words. During one viewing of "The Greeting," I felt a sickening moment of suspended animation, the type you experience during the announcement of devastating news. A subsequent brush with the piece provided an entirely different sensation. It is left to the viewer to furnish the final version of the story that surrounds the ambiguous trio.

Less narrative than experiential, "Buried Secrets" randomly navigates the often murky waters of the psyche. It commands the viewer to dip into his or her unique database of dreams, perceptions, desires, ideas and life experiences to infuse the work with meaning--meaning which the artist refuses to supply and which can chimerically change with each subsequent viewing.

On its face, Viola's video opus is about communication. But, maybe more important, it is a study in opposites and contrasts; an examination of polarities that move so far apart they eventually meet and exchange places. This psychological morphing sucks us into a dream/nightmare entirely of our own making, one that becomes our reality, our experience.

At its finest>>, "Buried Secrets" is reminiscent of that eerie dream state between wakefulness and deep sleep, where perception becomes hyperreal and the line between illusion and reality is smudged. At its most perplexing, it is like a Zen koan, a baffling, sound-of-one-hand-clapping kind of riddle whose solution lies in the intuitive and insightful, rather than the intellectual.

But don't take my word for it. As Bill Viola has said on more than one occasion, "You don't need an art critic to tell you what 'Buried Secrets' is about."

"Bill Viola: Buried Secrets" continues through Sunday, June 9, at Arizona State University Art Museum at Nelson Fine Arts Center on ASU campus in Tempe.

For more details, see Art Exhibits listing in Thrills.