Bill Viola: Impermanence

Bill Viola has been investigating the mysteries of the human condition
for more than forty years, employing technology as a medium that
during those decades evolved at a rapid pace. In the past twenty years,
a period represented by nine of the ten works in this exhibition, Viola
emerged not only as a pioneer in the field of media arts, but perhaps
even more so as one as of the most important and revered artists of our
time. Impermanence is Viola’s first major survey exhibition in Istanbul.

Bill Viola: Impermanence Bill Viola: Impermanence Exhibition SpaceBorusan Contemporary

Cinematic World of Bill Viola

Bill Viola's works—exquisitely composed, mesmerizing—could best be described as “cinematic” if one were only concerned with esthetics. Each work seduces us with its hint of a grand narrative at work, a promise to reveal to us something we do not already know about birth, death, fear, desire, or reality. Certainly the works are enigmatic, but with their lush visual clarity, and with the presence of humans and human agency, with some conflict being confronted—we search for the story.

The Raft The Raft by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

The Raft, May 2004

A group of nineteen men and women from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds are suddenly struck by a massive onslaught of water from a high-pressure hose. Some are immediately knocked over and others brace themselves against the unprovoked deluge. Water flies everywhere, clothing and bodies are pummeled, faces and limbs contort in stress and agony against the cold, hard force. People in the group cling to each other for survival, as the act of simply remaining upright becomes an intense physical struggle. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, the water stops, leaving behind a band of suffering, bewildered, and battered individuals. The group slowly recovers as some regain their senses, others weep, and still others remain cowering, while the few with any strength left assist those who have fallen back to their feet.

The Raft The Raft, Bill Viola, From the collection of: Borusan Contemporary
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Ancestors Ancestors by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

Ancestors, 2012

Ancestors depicts a journey on foot across the desert made by a mother and her son in the heat of summer. In the course of traversing this vast and dangerous environment, a profound transformation occurs when the landscape swallows them in a dust storm and they emerge, finding companionship, strength, determination and clarity.

Bill Viola: Impermanence Bill Viola: Impermanence Exhibition SpaceBorusan Contemporary

These works are not so easily consumed. They are like koans, classic Buddhist riddles that are irresolvable, the contemplation of which destabilizes our everyday routine consciousness and forces us to transcend that consciousness, to a state in which, according to Surrealists as well as Buddhists, we have the possibility of actually seeing reality. We may experience a glimpse of what Viola calls the “invisible world” where our standard intellectual configurations of existence are revealed to be artificial: our sense of an independent self, our sensory experience of the physical world, and our awareness of time—time passing, time slowing or speeding up, time defining age and memory and the distinction between past, present, and future. Viola is asking us to consider that all of these are merely perception.

Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) (1979/1979) by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat), 1979 

Chott el-Djerid is the name of a vast, dry salt lake in the Tunisian Sahara Desert, where mirages are most likely to form in the midday sun. Here the intense desert heat manipulates, bends, and distorts the light rays to such an extent that you actually see things that are not there. Trees and sand dunes float off the ground, the edges of mountains and buildings ripple and vibrate, color and form blend into one shimmering dance. The desert mirages are set against images of the bleak winter prairies of Illinois and Saskatchewan, Canada, some of them recorded in a snowstorm. The opposite climactic conditions induce a similar aura of uncertainty, disorientation, and unfamiliarity.Through special telephoto lenses adapted for video, the camera confronts the final barrier of the limits of the image, the point when the breakdown of normal conditions, or the lack of visual information, causes us to reevaluate our perceptions of reality and realize that we are looking at something out of the ordinary—a transformation of the physical into the psychological. If one believes that hallucinations are the manifestation of some chemical or biological  imbalance in the brain, then mirages and desert heat distortions can be considered hallucinations of the landscape. It was like physically being inside someone else’s dream.

The Encounter (2012/2012) by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

The Encounter, 2012

Two women are taking separate journeys at opposite ends of their lives. At the intersection of their meeting, during a brief encounter, life bonds are strengthened and the mystery containing the knowledge is quietly passed on from the elder to the younger.

Three Women (2008/2008) by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

Three Women, 2008

Three Women is part of the Transfigurations series, a group of works that reflect on the passage of time and the process by which a person’s inner being is transformed. The Sufi mystic Ibn al’ Arabi described life as an endless journey when he said, “The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.” Three Women expresses this profound vision of the eternal nature of human life. In the dim, ghostly gray of a darkened space, a mother and her two daughters slowly approach an invisible boundary. They pass through a wall of water at the threshold between life and death, and move into the light, transforming into living beings of flesh and blood. Soon the mother recognizes that it is time for her to return, and eventually her children slowly follow, each tempted to have one more look at the world of light before disappearing into the shimmering, gray mists of time.

Bill Viola: Impermanence Bill Viola: Impermanence Exhibition SpaceBorusan Contemporary

There are themes that run throughout all ten works: immersion, transformation, a confrontation with basic elements of air, and water. That last one is among Viola’s most powerful motifs. In works such as Ascension and The Raft water is a force the human figures struggle with and are controlled by; while in other works, such as Madison and Sharon, the immersion in water is a peaceful, perhaps edenic experience, a connection to the dream state. Viola’s early childhood event of near drowning is well known, but rather than see autobiography in his art, we can consider his own interpretation of his experience, as one true moment when he saw reality as it is, beautiful but fleeting. Buddhists will remind us, as will the naysayers of our current social media saturation, that this is a problem of attentiveness, of being present in the moment. Chott el-Djerid, a much earlier video from 1979, addresses the question of perception, and serves to underpin the connective strands of the later pieces. Subtitled A Portrait in Light and Heat, it considers the phenomenon of a desert mirage, the dry Saharan lake of the title, and features the near-whiteout of a winter prairie landscape. The images are disorienting. We are perhaps meant to reckon with the disturbing notion that if our senses are unreliable then we have no mechanism for assessing the world or our selves within it. More likely Viola is simply inviting us to engage in the principal activity that he says defines his work: “looking with great focus at the ordinary things around me.”

Observance Observance by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

Observance, 2002

A steady stream of people slowly moves forward toward us. One by one they pause at the head of the line, overcome with emotion. Their gazes are fixed on an unknown object just out of sight below the edge of the frame. An air of solemnity and sorrow pervades the scene. Individuals sometimes touch each other gently or exchange brief glances as they pass. Couples comfort one another in their shared grief. All are unified by their common desire to reach the front of the line and make contact with what is there. Once their solitary moment is fulfilled, they move to the back of the line to make way for the others.

Observance Observance, Bill Viola, From the collection of: Borusan Contemporary
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The Trial The Trial by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

The Trial, 2015

A young woman and a young man, standing naked from waist up, are depicted in two vertical screens mounted side by side. Even though their worlds are separated, they undergo the same violent transformations that might ultimately unite them.Vulnerable in their exposed state, they are assaulted by streams of liquids that pour from above. First comes the black fluid of despair, which turns to fear as the liquid changes to red. With the flow of white liquid comes relief and nurturing, followed by the purification of cleansing water. Finally, a soft mist brings acceptance, awakening, and birth. The fluids represent the essence of human life: earth, blood, milk, water, and air, and the life cycle from birth to death, a transformation from darkness into light.

The Trial The Trial, Bill Viola, From the collection of: Borusan Contemporary
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Bill Viola: Impermanence Bill Viola: Impermanence Exhibition SpaceBorusan Contemporary

Sharon and Madison, 2013

Sharon and Madison depict a woman and a young girl under water at the bottom of a stream bed. Their eyes are closed and they appear to be at peace. Water ripples across their body, subtly animating their movements and their long, flowing hair. The sound of running water permeates the space as dreams filter through their watery environment.

Sharon, Bill Viola, 2013/2013, From the collection of: Borusan Contemporary
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Madison, Bill Viola, 2013/2013, From the collection of: Borusan Contemporary
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Ascension Ascension by Bill ViolaBorusan Contemporary

Ascension, 2000

The stillness of an underwater landscape is broken when a fully clothed man suddenly plunges into the water from above.  Accompanied by a roar of sound and a luminous explosion of bubbles and turbulence, he slowly sinks with arms outstretched, his body limp and motionless.  Shafts of light undulate as streams of glowing bubbles ascend to the disturbed surface.  Midway down, the man’s descent slows and finally stops, and his body remains suspended in space.  Slowly he begins to rise again, eventually reaching the surface.  There, air bubbles emerge from his mouth and he begins his involuntary descent again.  This time he sinks into the depths and his body soon disappears into the darkness below the edge of the frame, allowing the landscape to return to its undisturbed state.

Ascension Ascension, Bill Viola, From the collection of: Borusan Contemporary
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Credits: Story

Curator: Kathleen Forde

For more information about Bill Viola:

All the artworks are owned and all rights of the texts are copyrighted by Bill Viola Studio.

Exhibition space was photographed by Nazlı Erdemirel.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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