Biennale Sideshows: The Viola Section

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During Biennale season, Venice fills with small exhibitions that aren’t part of the official show but have its blessing. Taken together they make a kind of citywide art fair. As you lug your day bag over the canals and little streets it’s easy to drift across something like an inflated rubber iceberg resting incongruously on some sun baked piazza. For the record, the iceberg is in the Campo Stefano. Actually, it looks more like that dessert the French call a blanc mange. You might know it — the dessert, not the iceberg — from the Monty Python skit in which one plays tennis. I think that one turns out to be from the Andromeda galaxy. The one in Venice is from an artist named Josefina Posch, part of a group exhibition scattered around the city called “Migration Addicts”.

Yesterday as I was making my way back to the main Biennale locations on the far end of the Grand Canal I noticed that a church on the Campo San Gallo was hosting a video installation by Bill Viola called “Ocean Without A Shore”. I have mixed feelings about his work, big, portentous, slow motion videos in which we’re approached by figures who feel out our need for transcendence the way Christmas cards feel out our need for seasonal warmth. People are engulfed in fire and water. I’ve been moved by them, but I’ve never looked at one without thinking of 19th century devotional art, all those images intended to speak to a general longing for religious comfort in an era of doubt.

Viola’s project at the Church of San Campo is another of those, big, beckoning and indeterminate. It was interesting to see one in an actual church. This one consists of three vertical, rectangular video screens, one above the central altar, with the other two on the walls to either side. On any of the three screens there’s always a person very slowly approaching in blurry black and white video against a completely dark background. As she (let’s talk about the women) reaches what you might call the picture plane, she reaches out a hand that breaks through what turns out to be a curtain of water that you haven’t until now understood was there. For the first time there’s sound — a roar. Then she passes directly towards you through the cascade and emerges dripping on the other side in full color and high definition. For a long while, still dripping, she stands and stares at you enigmatically. Then she turns around and passes back through the waterwall into the dim, blurry black and white. Meanwhile, on the other two screens there are people either approaching in the same way to enter the brightness or heading back into the same darkness. On all three sides, this sequence goes on continually.

What I take to be happening here, as so often in Viola’s work, is that the religious impulse is being stripped of dogma and reduced to its most fundamental expression, a generalized sense of awe, mystery and release. As I said, it’s devotional art, and of an indiscriminate kind. But to see it in a church, in this world poised between the fanatically religious and the radically desanctified, is something that will stay with me for a while.