Time in Video, The Art of Bill Viola


The Art of Bill Viola. Edited by Chris Townsend.

“Since human beings as all living beings are essentially creatures of time; the medium of video is very well suited to expressing these concerns because of its specific temporality” (Neumaier, 2004 p.47).

Viola’s use of physical space to shift the experience of viewing away from the TV screen to a more spatial, viewers-body-included installation can also serve to highlight the cycles of time. In a room where a wall sized projection is playing at a manipulated speed, the viewer cannot help but to slow down or speed up in response to what is shown, the experience becomes immersive, a physical experience of the shifts of time.

To pray without ceasing 1992 plays in a continual cycle and images “depicting light and fire, darkness, water, nature, birth and decay; individual and social existence  – are projected onto a window. These images can only be seen clearly during the night; during the day, only a pale, vague idea of them lingers” (Neumaier, 2004, p.57).

To Pray Without Ceasing, 1992

To Pray Without Ceasing, 1992

The work ties itself not only to the fall of darkness to illicit its viewing or the light of day to transform its images to hauntings. The work demands of its viewers time spent, the audio accompanying the visuals is a voice reading passages from Walt Whitman’s Song of myself 1855. This demands that the viewer stays, invests time in understanding the relationships between sound, words, imagery, window pane and light or lack of it. The viewer can never completely grasp the complete cycle, in  one viewing and would need to spend hours over a number of visits to view the complete work. Neumaier in his 2004 essay; Space, time, video, Viola explains that video art exists in time in the same way a piece of music or drama does.

that is, if we were just to glance at it for one moment, we could not justifiably claim to have seen the work; it is necessary to watch at least one whole cycle of projection. However, the installation of a video piece in a room, because of its relationship to the exhibition of pictures, induces us to assume that it can be grasped by ‘just glancing at it’. This misunderstanding also influences our way of dealing with motionless images. It seems that we are more willing to take into account the temporal dimension of video works if we view them on TV. (p.58)

Viola’s work asks the viewer to invest time in the watching, video unfolds itself in real time to the viewer, regardless of the manipulation of time within the work, the playing of the sequence is always experienced by the viewer in their own, real, time. Neumaier goes on to say that as viewers we must also be ready, be willing to let the work

have an effect on us, or to enter into its world. This takes time… the time required to achieve any depth of understanding extends beyond the duration of a single work. It is necessary to devote oneself to a work more than once and to deal with its relation to other works as well. (p.59)

Viola has interesting ideas about the nature of the medium its temporality and the transitory nature of images which exist only in the mind of the viewer

the viewer sees only one image at a time in the case of film, and more extreme, only the decay trace of a single moving point of light in video. In either case, the whole does not exist (except in a dormant state coiled up in the can or tapebox), and therefore can only reside in the mind of the person who has seen it, to be revived periodically through his or her memory… Images are born, they are created, they exist, and in the flick of a switch, they die. (as cited by  Neumaier p.70)

Images are formed and then they are gone, in an echo of the similarly temporal nature of human beings. Time is what defines the boundaries of being-ness. Human existence is determined by time.

Time as a concept in art and particularly in film making is an important theme. Works like Andy Warhol’s Empire or Sleep where nothing of particular interest happens or mundane events play out, like the activity of sleep, which has been explored by Viola and more recently Sam Taylor-Johnson (née Taylor-Wood) with David Beckham.  Douglas Gordon’s film 24 Hour Psycho 1993 is another that plays with the extension of time and the impossibility of complete viewing.

If there is a convention for the treatment of time within film, it applies only to its compression: The narrative depends on the juxtaposition of significant moments. It is rare for filmmakers to use slow motion for any long period… the plastic properties of recorded time (its extensibility, contractibility or reversibility) are at best an occasional novelty. (Wainwright 2004, p.118)

The extension of time by these artists is more than novelty, it causes a re-think of time as something malleable, something that can be manipulated, not solid but liquid.

Time is also deeply personal to the viewer as the perception of time is lived and experienced, bound to the viewers perception. Moments can last longer than would seem possible or pass in the blink of an eye. The manipulation of film or video to slow motion as in many of Viola’s films like Passage 1987 draws great import and significance to the subjects shown, making each movement momentous. John Berger wrote on the experience of Time:

Time appears to pass at different rates because our experience of its passing involves not a single but two dynamic processes which are opposed to each other: as accumulation and dissipation. The deeper the experience of a moment, the greater the accumulation of experience. This is why the moment is lived as longer. The dissipation of the time flow is checked. The lived durée is not a question of length but of depth or density. (As cited by Wainwright 2004, p.122)

Moving image allows us to impart these moments of great import, this accumulated experience to the viewer. Viola’s work in particular drawing as it does on the great beauty and dilemmas of the human condition; an accumulation of the experiences of humanity, needs the extra time-space of extended slow-time to become reflective space. A place where attention and understanding become extended, a kind of meditational time-space.


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