Taking the Plunge

Bill Viola brings the Ogunquit Museum into deeper waters

Bill Viola (b. 1951) The Fall Into Paradise, 2005, Single-channel video installation, high definition, color, sound, 09:58 minutes
Smithsonian American Art Museum, copyright 2005, Bill Viola, museum purchase through the Luisita L. and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment, 2012.56.

“The two forces that have done the most to shape who we are as human beings, both inside and out, and throughout history, are technology and revelation.”

Bill Viola, quoting Huston Smith in a 2009 interview

At the age of six, Bill Viola jumped off a raft into a lake and nearly drowned. While underwater, Viola, now 67, was not afraid. On the contrary, he remembers discovering the most beautiful world he had ever seen, with undulating waves, flowing plant life, and beams of light piercing the depths. In a 2013 interview with Louisiana Channel, Viola said, “I was shown just by this accident that there is more than just the surface of life … that the real thing is under the surface.” He later described the event as the most peaceful experience he’s ever had, a feeling the artist has been trying to recapture ever since.

On July 12, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art will open the first video art exhibition in its 65-year history with Bill Viola’s The Fall into Paradise. This will also be the first time Viola’s work has been exhibited in Maine. Recognized as one of the most significant contemporary artists in the world, Viola creates stunning moving images that defy categorization. His work bends and shapes time, tugging at the essence of our shared human experience.

Viola was an avid drawer as a child, often lying to friends and family about social plans so he could hole up in his room and sketch. While in high school, in the late ’60s, he had an opportunity to see one of the very first video cameras in action. When the video began projecting as a tiny rectangle of light on the wall, Viola recognized the blue glow and undulating movement and was immediately transported to that otherworldly experience underwater when he was six. At that moment, he knew he had found his medium. He would later describe video as “electronic water.”

Viola is now considered a pioneer of video art, using and exploring the medium in ways that defied all those who argued that video would never be recognized as Art. Shortly out of college, in 1977, he met Kira Perov, now his wife and collaborator, and the two went on to travel and make work throughout the world, a journey that included filming traditional artistic performances in Java and mirages in the Sahara. One opportunity brought the couple to Japan for a year and a half. This is where Viola’s strong affinity for Eastern culture and religion took root. He and Perov began to study Zen Buddhism and initiated a lifelong practice.

In an interview for the Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar, Viola observed, “In Japan it was beginning to sink in that perhaps art resided in life itself, that as a practice it derives primarily from the quality of experience, depth of thought and devotion of the maker. Everything else — virtuosity with the materials, novelty of the idea or approach, innovation in craft or technique, skill of presentation, historical significance, importance of the venue — in short, almost everything I learned to value in art school — was secondary.”

Viola survived on grants and visiting-artist fees for the first 20 years out of college. He was awarded a sought-after position at the Getty Research Institute in 1998, where his research focused on how human beings express passionate emotion. He studied the ways emotion has been expressed throughout the history of art, with an emphasis on depictions of extreme emotion during moments of birth, death and love in medieval art. Although his work was exhibited in museums and alternative art spaces, Viola landed his first gallery show at the age of 42.

The first work by Viola I experienced was Nantes Triptych, a three-panel video installation created one year after his mother’s passing. On the left is a video, in real time, of a woman giving birth; in the center, a man, fully clothed, floating in water and flailing in slow motion; and on the right, a video of Viola’s mother as she lay dying, in a coma. The work is accompanied by an audio track of the woman giving birth, the movement of water, and breathing. I encountered the work alone and found myself moving through an experience of emotional pain, horror, awe, sadness, and, ultimately, an aching sense of wonder and impermanence.

Viola’s work is characterized by a driving interest in exposing and understanding the depths of human experience. He’s interested in what is happening beneath the veneer of everyday life, and has always been fascinated with the notion of the body as a kind of conceptual interface between the visible and the invisible. In a note from 1987, later published in Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, the artist wrote:

The body as the unconscious.
The body as mind.
Landscape as the body.
The mind as landscape.
The dissolution of the self in the breakdown
of inside/outside.
The skin as conceptual membrane.

The Fall into Paradise will be on view at the Ogunquit Museum through Oct. 31. This work was initially conceived as part of a monumental series of video pieces made to accompany a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, an operatic masterpiece based on the 12th century romance about a pair of doomed, yet transcendent, lovers. In a bold re-envisioning of the opera, Viola and Perov teamed up with theater director Peter Sellars and Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, to create a multimedia presentation of the work. Initially presented in Los Angeles, Paris and New York, it was a resounding success.

When the opera closed, Viola and Perov had hours of footage that could find new life outside the intense presence of Wagner’s music. The Fall into Paradise is one of these extracted and refinished works. The piece was originally created to accompany the moment Tristan and Isolde decide to drink poison together, overcome by the reality that the world will never accept their love. Secretly, Isolde’s maid has switched the poison in the vial with love potion. The two drink the elixir and then exist in this liminal moment, not knowing if they have died, before realizing they are both very alive and even more deeply in love.

The Fall into Paradise begins with a tiny pinpoint of light, at the moment the two decide to drink the vial. Slowly, that pinpoint expands, becoming an amorphous form with appendages, until finally, two human beings emerge. Filmed underwater, the piece conjures a meditative atmosphere for the viewer to enter. Like many of Viola’s pieces, the work is an immersive experience. The two performers are a married couple, both Cirque du Soleil veterans, and in iconic Viola form, the video has been slowed down to create an ethereal, dreamlike effect. Viola has discussed how, even as a child, the world for him moved too fast. He wanted to be able to absorb everything, and simply couldn’t at the pace of everyday life. He later studied how the brain and eye work, recognizing that there is much that happens literally too fast for a human to see. For Viola, slowing things down allows the mind to catch up with physical experience, to consciously absorb and reflect on what is transpiring. Slow motion allows the viewer to enter a space of conscious time, where every moment becomes elongated and open to being fully experienced.

“I go out with a video camera, but I’m not just interested in shooting a tree or a car as what they are,” Viola said in a 2006 interview with British daily The Telegraph. “They are surface appearances of something that’s really deep; I’ve known that since I was a child. That’s why I bend and stretch time, because it reveals those other dimensions. When you slow something down, you’re in more of a dream space, an internal, subjective space. That’s the reality I’m really after.”

•••

“We all contain certain natural propensities within ourselves, lying dormant like seeds waiting for the right conditions in order to sprout, and part of the effort in life’s spiritual journey is simply to get yourself to the right place so that the fruit can grow by itself.”

Bill Viola, in an interview for Lion’s Roar, 2004

At the Ogunquit Museum, The Fall into Paradise will be shown in the Little Gallery, a small space that provides the perfect enclosure to experience this intimate work. Screening the work of such a pivotal artist at a modestly sized, seasonal museum in Maine is no small feat, and signifies a fresh direction in the Ogunquit Museum’s programming. As the first video art to be shown at the museum, this piece was carefully selected by the relatively new Executive Director and Chief Curator, Michael Mansfield. Before taking the position in Ogunquit, Mansfield was Curator of Film and Media Arts at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, D.C. Mansfield’s background and skills make him the ideal person to strike a new course for this unrealized gem of a museum.

Mansfield’s experience with new media includes rebuilding Nam June Paik robots and hacking theme-park software to run the technology behind the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. He’s also an accomplished photographer and video artist himself. I sat down with Mansfield to discuss his path up to this point, and to see if he’d reveal any visions for the future of the Ogunquit Museum.

Michael Mansfield. photo/Larry Hayden

The Bollard: In 2009, you designed the Smithsonian’s first permanent gallery space devoted to moving images. What factors did you take into account to envision this media-specific space? Did the resulting structure end up visually distinct from many of the other galleries, or was it more technologically designed but still a white cube space?

Mansfield: I worked with a really fantastic exhibits design team at the Smithsonian. We had a number of conversations with exhibit designers and curators at other institutions well outside of ours, including MoMA and the Whitney. I knew, as a media maker myself, that we had to make the space as flexible as possible to enable artists who were working with all kinds of media to come and reinvent the gallery. There were quite a few conversations about the role that the white cube played in museum discourse, and we didn’t want to restrict ourselves to just that one style of experience. So we built the gallery to accommodate as many different kinds of artworks as possible. We built channels and conduit along the floorboards and inside the walls, and we hollowed out one of the walls entirely so that we could run cables and rain down data anywhere in the gallery at once.

It really did not look all that different from the other galleries in the museum, but the underlying structure of it was radically different. We also were not precious with the walls, the ceiling, or the floor. We took to painting them with the very first installation, so they could either be a black box, or a white cube, or something entirely different. We weren’t afraid to really use the space to present the best possible experience for the work, really privileging the artwork and the artist’s vision with each one of these installations. At that time, it was a really new approach to configuring a space.

Dozier Bell (born 1960), Vapor, 1992, Gouache and collage on paper, 14.5 x 11 in.: Frame: 23 x 19.25 in.
#1993.7, Gift of the Artist, 1993; currently on view as part of The View from Narrow Cove

What was so different about what you were doing?

One of the really radical things that we did throughout the entire museum was to create a digital show control system. We wired the entire building so that we could create a way of communicating with all of the technology that was used to exhibit works of art. We could turn an artwork on and off and monitor it, and it would communicate back to us to let us know if it was working properly, from a central location. This allowed us not just to control schedules, but also to limit the exposure of artworks so that we weren’t burning off time.

All media artworks have a limited shelf life or a limited lifespan, based on the amount of phosphorous in a television or how long a light bulb will run. With the new software, we weren’t overexposing works of art beyond the viewable hours. It also allowed for the artworks to tell us when they needed new light bulbs or new filters, or if there was a power fluctuation. Several of the artworks that we acquired and exhibited were really built on vintage materials, so that an artist would actually wire together a work of art on his kitchen table, soldering it all together, so there was only one unique instance of that device. They were inventing the artwork, so I didn’t want to power it any longer than I absolutely had to, to preserve it for as long as possible. But also, if there was a power fluctuation, or some indication in the system that it wasn’t working properly, I needed to be instantly notified so that we could turn it off and address it immediately, so as not to burn the work out or damage it forever. We really wanted to facilitate communication between the work of art and the staff so that we could ensure that the artist’s vision was accurately presented as safely as possible — for the artist, but also for the work of art itself.

Rudolph Dirks (1877-1968), The Kid Himself, 1921, Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 in., #1981.2, Gift of John Dirks and Barbara Dirks, 1921; currently on view as part of The View from Narrow Cove

This sounds like a phenomenal asset for a museum of the Smithsonian’s size and complexity, but also something that could be scaled down for smaller institutions, ensuring digital and time-based works are in their ideal state when visitors enter a space. Is this software publicly available?

It was actually a software package that was originally designed to run theme parks and we repurposed it. Alex Cooper was the lighting designer at the National Portrait Gallery, and he did a great deal of work to research what this program could do. Then we put our heads together to see how we could repurpose it to turn televisions and projectors on and off. Essentially, we hacked it to make it work for our program. It’s an incredibly robust system, and I think it’s got a long life at the museum.

It’s incredible to imagine being able to communicate with individual works of art, as if they were alive and breathing.

They are. One of the things that came out of a conversation I had with a curator at the National Zoo was that we were both approaching our “specimens” in the same way, that we wanted to track the lifespan of a work of art in a similar fashion to how they would track the lifespan of their red pandas. We wanted to have a really accurate record of how each object existed, and the system that we developed actually produced a great deal of data around individual artworks, so we could monitor everything from temperature to exhibition time.

They are living works. I mean, they breathe, they expand and contract, they heat up and they cool down. I think this is true for all works of art, not just media works, but it is particularly apparent in media pieces because you plug them in, they have to get power, they consume energy, and they consume themselves, in many cases, as you’re looking at them.

Marguerite Zorach (1887-1968), Mountain Brook, c. 1960, Oil on canvas, 26.5 x 23.5 in., #1965.14, Gift of the Artist; currently on view as part of The View from Narrow Cove

You were instrumental in organizing the Nam June Paik archive. Could you speak a little about that experience?

This was one of the highlights of my time at the Smithsonian, working with the senior consulting curator, John Hanhardt, who has really been a mentor of mine, and is one of the leading scholars and historians on the moving image and video. He was really very close to Nam June Paik, and organized exhibitions at the Whitney and the Guggenheim. The archive came to the Smithsonian Institution with John’s involvement, and I was able to learn an incredible amount both from John and from digging through that material. Paik was incredibly prolific across the spectrum of material he was working with, and his ideas and insights and perspective on technology as a mode of expression among artists was really informative for me as an artist, but also for me as a curator. Trying to find a way to organize that to ensure that it would be available and accessible to scholars and historians and artists really helped me to come to terms with what contemporary art could be. It was great.

I saw footage of you and your colleague donning pairs of blue latex gloves to open up and work on rebuilding the technology that would allow two of Paik’s robots to come back to life for an exhibition. How did it feel to be physically working on such pivotal work from a world-renowned artist?

It was fantastic. One of my first real projects at the Smithsonian was the complete rewiring of the back end of this large video wall titled Megatron Matrix, and it was literally pulling cables out and re-cabling the entire work, made up of 219 television sets, and connecting them to a series of video and computer processors. We took great care in that, but I also think Nam June Paik worked very loosely with materials. He was not precious in the way we tend to be as museum professionals. Working with his studio assistants directly on that work really opened up my thinking about how to approach the material. It certainly gave me a lot more confidence. I also think my experience with making technology works myself gave me a lot more confidence to rewire things and unwire things in order to get them working again.

While at the Smithsonian, you helped build the photography, film and media collection by selecting works for acquisition. How did you determine which works should be acquired?

I was given a lot of latitude to shape that collection. John Hanhardt and I worked together organizing the Nam June Paik archive, and that really gave us a foundation to build on. Paik invented the medium of video as an artist’s medium, so that was a springboard or a departure point for building the whole collection. I sought out works that added dimension to the possibilities of technology as a mode of expression among artists. I was able to bring in avant-garde American film and cinema works, and at the same time acquire computer-generated interactive media, to paint the broadest possible picture of the potential of this new medium for artists. I also collected key artists in depth. I don’t know that there was anything we were afraid of. I think that the institution itself really gave us the platform and support we needed to approach anything. I think we all felt charged with this mission to capture and present everything that artists were working with, if it was at all possible.

John Hultberg (1922-2005), Great Windows, 1964, Oil on canvas, #1994.3, Gift of the Artist; currently on view as part of The View from Narrow Cove

Your expertise in media arts falls decidedly outside the Ogunquit Museum’s forte. It would seem that you have an opportunity to really transform the museum’s presence as a destination for contemporary art. How are you approaching the building of an exhibition program? How challenging is it to align the museum’s strong traditional history with what I would imagine to be a very forward-thinking vision?

I think the exhibition program has to unify the work that forms the foundation of the museum with the work that’s happening in the present. I envision a program that is innovative and agile, that gives equal weight to the challenges artists were facing in the 19-teens and 1920s and 1950s with the work that artists are challenged to make today. I think a lot of their concerns are parallel to one another in one sense or another. It’s interesting to see the traditional arts exhibited alongside contemporary painting and the written word and the moving image and photography. It gives us a really clear look at where we came from and where we’re going. I plan on exhibiting some really challenging material, and I imagine that in the 1950s a lot of the work that was exhibited on the walls here was quite challenging to the audiences at that moment, so in that sense I see them perfectly in balance with one another.

This is the first year you were able to fully curate the exhibition season at OMAA. How did you put it together?

I shaped this season largely by looking at the program I want to build, and where I imagine the exhibition program can grow. I don’t want the museum to be identified as an exhibition space for purely traditional media. It’s not a seascape museum. I thought that we had a chance to put these great works on display that deal with the seascape and the environment and the land, and put them in conversation with a much broader range of contemporary materials and ideas. So, looking at paintings through the 65-year history of the museum, and the well over 100-year history of Ogunquit, set the stage for exploring ideas captured in Charles Burchfield’s wallpaper, decorative arts from the 1920s, and then contemporary painting with Steve Hawley. The second series of exhibitions opens the next chapter to Lois Dodd, which is a show I’m particularly excited about, as well as contemporary photography and the written word, with Richard Blanco and Jacob Hessler, and then the moving image, that we’re introducing here with Bill Viola’s The Fall into Paradise. This season is really a way of encompassing all of the ideas of the exhibition program I’m trying to build.

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), Mt. Katahdin, Winter, 1939-1940, Oil on panel, 21.5 x 27 in., #1958.5, Museum Purchase, 1958; currently on view as part of The View from Narrow Cove

Looking through the promotional materials for this season, it seems there is a general look at “paradise” as a theme or concept. Do you think your recent transplantation from D.C. to Maine may have affected your thinking?

There’s certainly a paradise here, but … the work The Fall into Paradise that Bill Viola conceived and created with Kira Perov, his partner … there’s something really rich buried in that work. There’s a transcendence and a breakthrough to consciousness that I think is quite difficult for artists to express, and they’ve found a way to do that with The Fall into Paradise. It’s one of the reasons I think that specific work of art will be so engaging in this place, here at the meeting place of the horizons and the rocks and the water. Yeah, there is a paradise here, but it’s not as clear-cut as just visually experiencing the landscape. There’s something richer than that.

The Fall into Paradise is a work that I’m really close to. I had a lot of experience with Bill and Kira and his studio in my last position. I brought the work to the Smithsonian Institution and worked to bring it to the public there, with a great deal of support and encouragement from Elizabeth Broun, the Executive Director at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as John Hanhardt. It’s a piece that transforms within itself, when you’re actually looking at it, but I also think it’s transformative when you experience it. I knew instantly that this would be a work of art that I would live with for a long time. And when I came to the Ogunquit Museum, I knew instantly that it was a work that needed to be shown here. I have been surprised to find that Bill Viola has not had any exposure in Maine, certainly not at this level. This is an artist that we certainly need to see, here, in this unfinished landscape.

To learn more about Mansfield’s work as an artist, check out the July issue of the Maine Arts Journal, available online July 1 at maineartsjournal.com. The Fall into Paradise will be on view at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art from July 12 through Oct. 31. John Hanhardt, Senior Curator of Media Arts at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, will discuss Viola’s work as part of the museum’s Totally Tuesday Talks series on Aug. 7, at 6 p.m. Works pictured from the exhibition The View From Narrow Cove are also on view through October.