The Postmodern Opera

John Haber
in New York City

Bill Viola in Soho

Video must stand as the ultimate postmodern art, right? Maybe not. As Bill Viola suggests, the computer can put on high opera. His show at the Soho Guggenheim gets wildly, even annoyingly overblown, but it makes for great theater. It also raises provocative questions about the place of Romanticism in a postmodern era. Bill Viola's Fire (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1997)

Get real

If Modernism and Postmodernism can agree on one thing, it is this: art must never be larger than life. I ought to know the arguments by heart. I have made them too often.

Modernism began with Impressionist street scenes and the lovingly faint, scattered echoes of a Cubist still life. No matter: art recreated the everyday rhythms that perception can so easily ignore. Has Modernism ended? If it has, it refused to go out with a bang. It insisted instead on the gorgeous banality of Minimalism, casual appropriations and chance happenings, gentle abstraction, or even abstraction with the feel of Viola's medium, videotape.

In all these styles, one could no longer look past the old bravura to an illusion. Art reflected on its medium, and it demanded that the viewer reflect, too. In other words, it accepted itself as a part of the ordinary world. In content and form alike, it offered what James Joyce once called "the dailiest day."

Postmodernism gave the same idea a critical turn. Forget the temple steps in front of that museum, the awesome whiteness of gallery walls, the labels on the wall. Hey, this is life.

Stop believing in portraits as a stand-in for spirituality or charisma, sexual conquests or despair, an artist's agonized reflection. All are fictions. Learn to see fine art as a not-so-fine commodity—except when it is bathed in blood or potentially in urine. Imagine the human presence as yet another pose, one conditioned by all the old games of gender and culture. Besides, ever since Marilyn Monroe replaced the Virgin and the whore, who could seriously worship art anyway?

Or do new media change that? Somehow, nothing could be more postmodern and yet so grandiose. Virtual reality uses equipment that no one understands for long. It provides televised images that seemingly never go away. It means multiple film screens bigger than most New York apartments. If it abolishes reality, it also restores awe and belief. No wonder all that stuff about the medium and the message sounds so apocalyptic—and so phony.

Elemental man

Bill Viola's two new installations aim for grandeur. They tower over the viewer, even more than surround video for David Claerbout, and their themes of fire and water come right out of myth. They are, quite literally, matters of life and death. Their illusions remain amazing even to a computer jock (or digital artist, if one can tell the difference yet), much less to me.

Viola makes dramatic use of the Soho Guggenheim's ground-floor space. As I penetrated behind the museum's entrance partition, I hardly knew where to turn. Even as my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I could not say how many separate works I saw. To the left, a man was swimming—or no, floating—beneath rippling water. Far to the right, a commanding figure, also a good ten feet tall, rose from a pillar of flame.

I turned left and decided I was seeing a distinct work. Almost as frightened of the image as of the darkness, I sought a comforting place to lean. These installations move one to stand for a long time in patient expectation.

The naked form at the left seemed slowly to dissolve in water. Or was he somehow more and more hidden by waves? The beautifully lit surface shone, and so did dozens of small, golden spots. I had a creepy feeling that they were coins, that a dead man lay there in a shallow fountain. No, I was wrong again. They were air bubbles; and as soon as the man vanished, his body began to materialize again, rising now to the surface.

As his wide eyes and open mouth reached the air, he could have been gasping for breath or displaying the horrible stare of a corpse. Somehow his limp penis kept getting my attention. I already had seen fire, water, and air; maybe this stood for earth. At the very least, if this museum depends on Congress for funding, I guess I have something still more chilling to come.

The body sinks, liquefies, and appears again, all in a continuous loop. Could even James Rosenquist get so big and take himself so seriously? More uneasy than ever, I turned away to catch the fire, but I had already seen how Viola's twin installations work. Contrast the floating man to my story about modern and postmodern art.

Standing room at the opera

Far from impersonality, Viola has taken as his art the human presence. The video transports one along with the naked body, to the brink of existence. In fact, he indulges in the ultimate in self-exposure. Guess who serves as his only actor!

Far from everyday events, the elemental motifs revel in myth. Viola places himself as male hero beyond cultural constraints. I half expected "The Ride of the Valkyries" to start playing, and I wondered where I had last seen such theater outside of Star Wars.

Far from disclosing his technique, he flaunts the illusion. I bet he took a quick, relatively harmless dip underwater. He then must have superimposed a shot of the same ripple tank, fading the two sequences in and out of each other electronically. Then again, maybe not, and I have no idea how I managed to catch my breath long enough to analyze things at all.

Far from focusing on life's ordinary rhythms, he slows time down till it could almost have ceased. Whatever the computer manipulation behind it all, control of the time scale is the key to this overwhelming, chilly fiction. Only later did I notice the video's steady roar of ambient sound: the whole idea of natural events came at first as too great a surprise.

Viola turns his back insistently on my half-trendy critical theories. He takes himself—as actor, creator, and man—into fire and water. He pushes to their limits the video's slow pacing, elemental drama, and technical know-how. Modernism and Postmodernism seem far, far away. In comparison even Paul Gauguin had a feminist awareness and a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward nature.

The second piece may work even better, but it works much the same way. That fire image I had seen to the right projects onto a translucent screen from behind. Walking around it, one therefore sees the same video, but along with a second screen far deeper in the room.

On both screens, Viola starts as a tiny figure off in the distance. He walks in slow motion toward the foreground, arms swinging in a stereotypical male stride. (I suppose that makes up for his wearing clothing this time.) In time he stands firmly in the picture plane, apparently on a metal grill, eyes firmly ahead. An intense light from behind surrounds his face with a sort of halo. The same light helps projects his reality even more solidly out at the viewer.

All that is preamble. This second piece has a beginning and an end. Now, on one screen, a single drop of water lands from above on his head. I felt a long, tense pause, and then the water keeps on falling, rapidly reaching a torrential downpour. One can see it cascading off his sleeves, showering his once invulnerable form till one can hardly see him. Meanwhile, on the near screen, flames rise up from the grating, consuming his feet and then slowly enfolding his whole body.

On both screens, he appears to disintegrate, again surely a tricky superimposition of two shots. Once he has gone, the waters subside, and the flame dies away. The screen goes black.

Viola the romantic?

In both works, then, I had the feeling I was watching something not postmodern, but pre-modern. Above all, I thought of Romanticism—not unlike what another video artist, Jesper Just, has called his Romantic Delusions. This drowning man could well have fallen off Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa. The torrential rains could have pelted J. M. W. Turner at the mast; they might have filled Albert Bierstadt's deepest mountain pools. The fire could have purified a great hero or burned in the exotic chambers of Delacroix's harems.

Video art's diverse histories and light shows need have nothing in common. Yet often it has taken its cues from the medium in one of two ways. It has become about the technology, or it has returned to a Romantic theater of illusion. (I discussed the first idea in a review of "Mediascape" last year, at the same museum. I argued the second in reviewing Gary Hill, also at Soho Guggenheim, and the anniversary of twenty-five years of experimental video down in Tribeca.) In both ways, its history has diverged strikingly from avant-garde cinema, which long ago got away as best it could from special effects and narrative development.

One could argue that Viola goes for both at once. He preaches technology and nature, like new-age music. Bruce Nauman's interest lies in his refusal to indulge in either sentimentality. So does the interest of videos in the Whitney Biennial, with their transgressive scenes of the male and female body. Okay, they come across as a childish rebellion, but now I can occasionally see why they do it.

However, to think again of Star Wars, the saga continues—and, thankfully, it also gets stranger. Romanticism has always had another side. Wordsworth and Coleridge made it their manifesto.

I mean a special kind of individualism, born of introspection. With nature as a guide and natural light as a driving symbol, the mind goes through conflict and comes out different, finer. If it requires "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," it asks for nothing extraordinary. To quote Wordsworth again, the poet is "a man speaking to men," and "personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur." One should never expect sudden changes. Coleridge criticizes even his close friend for "inconstancy of style."

To a Romantic, then, a mind is born not of nature's simplicity, but in a complex process. It accepts the paradoxes in its history as a part of itself, and it associates that history with clarity and constancy. It foretells modern notions of a divided unconscious and an ironic art.

Romantic art therefore may value nature and emotion, but also individual rebellion and an impersonal formalism. It tells a story—one of deadpan revelations, self-discovery, and second chances. One can see why it defines a long century from Gericault's madmen to van Gogh's portraits.

One can also see why, as a ton of postmodernists keep saying, Modernism carries enough Romantic baggage to sink a ship. What could be more modern than remaking oneself? Even as hardened a type as Jasper Johns obliterated traces of his early paintings.

Deconstructing Romanticism

From that perspective, Viola may well look postmodern after all. He rejects the entire heritage of Romanticism within Modernism, including plainness, interiority, and happy endings. In his new videos, body has no appearance of mind. Nothing lies within, behind the screen, except the same image on its reverse. His fires do not purify; they destroy, and even that theatrical resolution fails to endure. The video's cycle plays on, over and over and over again.

Viola may even question my whole, increasingly untidy art history. I have first associated modern and postmodern art with real life, Viola with Romantic gestures. Then I made him a kind of anti-Romantic, against Modernism. His rebellion, it appears, necessarily comes with perplexing allegiances. His attempt to cut through the illusions of ordinary life adds a fresh layer of illusion.

Perhaps I shift allegiances, too. I tell of battle, between a good and bad Romanticism, one lurking within modern art and one that Modernism demolished. That sounds a bit odd, especially coming from me and my talk of the sublime. I once flew to Cleveland chiefly to see one painting by F. E. Church. It is also quite Romantic.

Or am I reading too much into Viola's play for the cheap seats? I can never get over my doubts. When his body vanishes in flames, I know I am being manipulated. I want something not overwhelming, only disconcerting. I think I am settling for awe in the video age rather than the comfort of strangers, as at the Rothko Chapel, for old truths when art knows too well that they are lies. In fact, half-drowning myself at his noisy retrospective barely a year later, I became sure of it.

Still, I saw an amazing installation. I can only begin to judge how seriously to take it and what it means.

BACK to John's arts home page

Bill Viola's two installations ran through April 6, 1997, at The Guggenheim Museum Soho.


Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME