Bill Viola: "The Raft" (2004)
I was lucky enough to see this Bill Viola piece - my first ever in person - this month at Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI). Viola, who cut his teeth at Syracuse University in the 1970s before forging an intense love for mystical traditions (Buddhist, Christian, Islamic) through travel, gets hailed quite a bit as one of America’s pioneering video artists. For all that, his work intentionally conjures up a lot of traditional sentiment - homages to the sentiment and style of medieval and renaissance devotional art abound. Skipping the didacticism, he restores the idea of spiritual processes as a magical, transformational and personal process (as in 1996’s The Crossing). He’s also able to extract some of their reserved dignity and apply it to modern, secular events: here’s 2002’s Observance, a post 9/11 work whose line of mourners carry more weight than the near-pornographic grief popular media and culture rutted in over those same months.
As with most video art, this stuff just seems more…right on a big screen, in a big space - but I adore the ethos of The Raft. Taking its cues from another famous historical painting of suffering (no prizes for guessing which), the premise of its six minutes is simple. A group of about twenty men and women, all of whom come from varying races and socio-economic backgrounds, gather at a waiting point - a bus stop, a subway station, whatever. There’s not enough space, and it’s not comfortable, arse to tit with people you don’t know and would never associate with. As more people arrive, they uneasily construct their social space - boundaries where there simply isn’t the physical room to have any. Transgressors - a headstrong, brusque old man, a slightly bewildered older Indian lady - are received with glares and icy shoulders.
Then they’re flattened beyond recognition by a massive onslaught of water. Bodies are pummeled, faces contorted in agony, limbs thrash helplessly.
The last minute or so almost made me cry.