You were looking forward to this exhibition. A friend had dropped you conveniently close to the entrance of the Grand Palais. There were two long queues at the bottom of the grand staircase. You could not care less as you had borrowed a VIP pass from another friend. Privilege. You had seen some videos by Viola before. The first one must have been at the opening of the Paris American Center back in the 90s. You had remained impressed by the slow diver on the whole height of a vertical wall. Then there had been a couple of “Passion” pieces (was this at the MET?) with their Caravagesque lighting. You had also seen the chef d’oeuvre, “Going forth by day”, (not in Berlin though, but where?). So you were thrilled when entering the exhibition.
The introduction pool piece mixing suspension and suspense did its job. Next you had the artist himself attempting to achieve immortality by holding his breath as long as he could. Then he would exhale like a locomotive. Further two characters moved on nine layers of thin fabric, very Douglas-Gordon-like, most graceful. Then you got to “Going forth…” and the visit started to turn disappointing,…
Trivia. Not mentioning the rapid obsolescence of the techniques (Nam June Paik’s works are mostly invisible to-day due to the unavailability of the originals monitors), video art bears its share of equivoque. It is not cinema. It is not television. It has much higher ambitions than advertising or music clips. It still dreams of being popular. It is both a private and public medium. Thus the difficulties to present it to the public in a standard form. Galleries and museums where it is mostly exhibited have to build specific cells according to the size of the work, using different screens, dealing with light and sound constraints. Presenting several works adds the question of circulation of the viewers/visitors not mentioning an adequate dramaturgy. Tough! Then standing somewhere between cinema and TV, video art has, as the French would say, the ass between two chairs (le cul entre deux chaises). But at the Grand Palais, chairs there are none. Not even a narrow bench along a wall. You are condemned to stand in the dark, lean on a wall eventually or sit on the floor. Your brothers/men and your sisters/women are going back and forth entering and exiting distracting your vision. And there are plenty of them (the Grand Palais claims 2700 visitors a day for the show) Success kills success.
Sublimity.The exhibition featuring some 20 works (8 hours of projections + loops) requires a long span of attention. Who is the super-viewer who can stand it? As the artist said: “If you give people too much information, you create an information overload”. How right this is! Then at the Paris exhibition, there is no intermission. No popcorn. No ice-cream cones. No bar (are you kiddin’?) At a certain point of discomfort, you might have the temptation of zapping. But one is not supposed to zap such profound subjects as life, death or immortality. Viola makes no secrets of his references and inspirations: Buddhism, Hinduism, Saint John of the Cross. We are seriously serious, ain’t we? The artist as an ecumenical preacher. Reverend Bill. In your days “Reverend Bill” or “Uncle Bill” was a nickname for William Burroughs, a joke of course. At least Burroughs did not give lessons, not even in shooting! What are you supposed to do according to Viola? Fall upon your knees, pray, ask for forgiveness and mercy? Along the way you start to rebel..From now on you will cherish your dirty mind and perverted soul. You will want to go nowhere else than to purgatory, preferably with the little lady sitting at the forefront of the Last Judgment by Memling (was she Maria Portinari?) When you have emerged from the black labyrinth, you felt worn out, slightly irritated and depressed. At the end of the day what have you seen? A lot of waters, calm or bursting out of windows, ascending/descending bodies, transfigurations, lamentations, nudes old and sad. Not the slightest hint of sensuality, not the faintest smile (or did you miss it? Is not Buddha supposed to be the smiling one?)
You walk slowly down the grand staircase. There is still a crowd queuing in two lines. The gregarious instinct. But you are back in the real world with the traffic and the police sirens.
You are on the street. It is twilight (his favorite time of the day, Viola says) A fat moon plays hide and seek with a tiny cloud. The city and the cars lights glitter in the dark blurred by a subtle mist. Pollution? You inhale deeply. You walk to the subway and stop at the newsstand. You buy Le Monde. You take your change back, say thanks and smile to the vendor. He smiles back. You say “thank you” again. He says “What?” You say “Nothing. Ciao.” How can you explain that he has saved your day?