Bill Viola’s survey show, “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola,” has been on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA all summer. Open through September 15, it includes eight major works from 1976-2009, curated by John G. Hanhardt.
The exhibition opens with a gallery of four videos, each connected by a theme of the ritual. Ablutions (2005) is an entrancing diptych of a woman and man washing their hands. The five-channel Catherine’s Room (2001) takes viewers through the day of a woman alone in a room—doing yoga, getting dressed, eating, reading, working, sleeping. The Greeting (1995), which debuted at the Venice Beinnale, captures three women meeting, set in slow motion, both in image and sound. Finally, there is the emotionally raw Observance (2002), a vertical work of a line of people filing forward to view and grieve—what, we do not see—as if at a wake.
In the next room is the haunting Ascension (2000). Catch it at the beginning, when the room is pitch black, and then illuminates with a splash as a fully-clothed body plunges into water. We watch as it rises toward the surface, tension building, ultimately never reaching the air above and drifting out of frame below.
Down the hall is the eerie Pneuma (1994/2009), filling four walls from floor to ceiling. Like the static from poor reception on a TV channel, familiar images, shapes, and figures come in and out of focus, but just as you recognize them, they disappear.
“I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola” concludes with a rare early work, He Weeps for You (1976). A closed-circuit video records and projects the reflection of the visitors of the gallery through a drop of water that grows and plummets onto a drum below—the sound of which, one realizes, has lead them through the entire exhibition.
The show coincides with several presentations of Viola around town, including at The Fabric Workshop and Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), and is accompanied by a new catalogue published by the Barnes and edited by Hanhardt. Whitewall spoke with the curator at the opening in June.
WHITEWALL: The flow of the exhibition is not chronological. Can you tell us about how you wanted to move viewers through?
JOHN G. HANHARDT: That’s the idea, so that it flows but you’re not forced. You can make discoveries in different spaces. And I think it’s great opening with a cluster of works and then focusing on bigger pieces, immersive experiences, and different ways of looking at the moving image.
WW: Eight works are shown, including the namesake for the exhibition playing in the theater. How did you select these pieces?
JGH: It was a process. I know his work so well and I’ve spent a lot of time with him, so it was trying to come up with something different—another kind of look and another kind of installation, through a different kind of selection.
These two pieces [Pneuma and He Weeps for You] have never been shown together and they’re very complicated pieces to show. This is a rare opportunity that concludes with these rarely-seen pieces.
WW: It’s neat how you hear the drop long before you see where it comes from.
JGH: Oh, I love it. A lot of people say, “Oh, you shouldn’t hear anything in a gallery.” Well, I think you can.
Sound is very important to his work. Sometimes it’s the slowing down of a natural sound, or the introduction of a sound.
You know, years ago, they used to actually play music at the Guggenheim. There’s a whole back history to museums. They weren’t all white-walled spaces. They used color and everything. But now everything is of a particular kind.