Leila Heller Gallery Dubai presents an exhibition of the work of Bill Viola, entitled “The Vast: Mirrors of the Mind“, curated by Brooke Lynn McGowan. Presenting a selection of pioneering video pieces, including works from the Sufi-inspired series “Transfiguration Studies” (2008), desert-based mediations on existence from the “Mirage” (2012) series, and the hauntingly infinite fluidity of the “Water Portraits” (2013), “The Vast: Mirrors of the Mind” seeks to reveal to the viewer the thematic relationships in Viola’s work of the portrayal of desert and water as emblematic of his explorations of the voyage of life and death, consciousness and reflection—East to West.
Each of the works in this exhibition explore Viola’s representation of the limits of of perception at the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious mind and his desire to “go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void… where all becomes strange and unfamiliar…. You have reached the edge… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like … [a] mirror in your mind.”
The desert, for Viola, is the mirror of the mind. The vast, harsh, arid landscape is the first point of contact that the artist discovered in his oeuvre between the physical and the psychological, producing mirages, which Viola terms as early as 1979 as “hallucinations of landscape”—the experience, he notes, “of being in someone else’s dream.” Using the medium of video to explore the layers of reality and illusion in the physical world of the desert expanse, the Mirage series (2012), including Lifespans (2012) and Walking on the Edge (2012), seeks to investigate the limits of our understanding of the position of the human in the natural order, both physically and metaphysically. The artist describes Lifespans (2012), noting
“This work represents the inevitable separation of father and son as they take separate paths in their life’s journey. Two men arrive in the desert under a turbulent sky. They appear at the far extremes of the frame and walk toward us on a trajectory that takes them closer to each other, until they are walking side by side. Eventually they cross paths and begin to separate. The gap between them widens until they leave the outer edges of the frame”.
For Viola, this “inner as well as outer journey” presents the viewer with the landscape of the desert as the landscape of the mind, in what has been called one of his ‘purest’ statements on the voyage through consciousness towards our perception of the exterior world. Here, the edge he seeks has been reached. The desert is the void. And thus also is the self. If the desert appears as a leitmotif throughout Viola’s oeuvre, so does water, conceived by the artist both as analogous to the very medium of video, as well as possessing symbolic connotations of the passage of birth, death, and renewal. No examples of this are at once more compelling and more haunting than the pieces from two series, Transfiguration Studies (2008) and Water Portraits (2013). The former series was created in concert with and taking inspiration from the artist’s installation piece for the 52nd Venice Biennale, Ocean without a Shore, which took its title from the writings of the 13th century Andalusian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, who wrote, “The self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning nor end, in this world and the next”.
Like couples which abide a perpetual journey, from an inscrutable horizon into confrontation with the viewer, and then back into oblivion, Lenny (2008) and Howard (2008), the two works from the Transfiguration Studies presented in this exhibition, each portray figures on a voyage that is interminable because it is eternal. The artist explains, these “series of encounters at the intersection between life and death” occur as the figure appears at first grainy and in black and white, reaching through an invisible until breached wall of water, signifying a birth, emerging in full colour before the viewer. However, as the subjects realize that their existence in the incarnate world is finite, they, according to Viola, “eventually turn away from material existence to return from where they came. The cycle repeats without end.” Here, the water signifies both life and death, an endless voyage of renewal. These works, like others from his oeuvre, express the importance to the artist of Sufism as a form of philosophic and aesthetic grounding for his work. In 1976, taking from this Islamic tradition of transcendental metaphysics, Viola writes, “One of the foundations of the ancient philosophy [of Sufism] is the concept of the correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm, or the belief that everything on the higher order, or scale, of existence reflects… the manifestation…of lower orders.” Every level of existence mirrors. The endlessness of the journeys of the Mirage and Transfiguration series meets an uncanny stillness in the haunting images of the Water Portrait series, three of which are presented in this exhibition. Accompanied by the sound of gently flowing water, the three videos, Sharon (2013), Blake’s Dream (2013), and Madison (2013), each portray a woman, a young man, and a little girl respectively completely submerged beneath the water, still, eyes closed, moved only by the gentle rippling of the current. Writing in notebooks in 1980, Viola notes, “Death is non-movement/Stillness is life/Stillness is death/Stillness is the root of all life.” Thus, despite the melancholic and certainly meditative presentation of these dreamers, whose countenance recalls as much as it subverts the 19th century use of photographs as mementos to the dead, the works portray the liminal state of sleep, between the conscious and the unconscious, where stillness, and the water which surrounds, is life, is death, is the root of all life.