Inverted Birth, the titular work of Bill Viola’s latest exhibition at James Cohan gallery, features a lone protagonist bathed in a torrent of dark fluid that changes to red, then milky white, then to a clear liquid that dispels into mist. There is gorgeous imagery as liquids stream upward and the vulnerable central figure is dramatic and affecting. The man, projected twice life-size and clad only in pants, takes in the deluge with minimal motion. He raises his head and lifts his hands out slowly, over a course of some ten or fifteen minutes. After the deluge ceases, he lowers his head to look directly out at the viewer. The action is slow, like everything else in the work, and his gaze is inscrutable.
The journey from dark to light that the man goes through parallels birth into the world. To make this video, Viola filmed the man standing dry and looking at the camera and then doused him with a stream of liquids from on high, above the camera’s view. The projection plays this footage slowed down and backwards. (You can watch a video of Viola’s studio at work on Inverted Birth if you like). So, there is a literal inversion in the technique behind this piece. Without knowing that, however, the viewer can see the inversion of gravity in the liquid streaming upward. Given the adult male used in the center, Inverted Birth suggests concern not with literal birth as much with the cycles of life, perhaps a more spiritual sense of awakening, and a focus on humanity at its most essential, both typical concerns of the artist.
The first work on view, the 2012 video Ancestors, depicts a man and woman walking across a hazy desert landscape. They move so slowly and from such a distance that it almost seems like a mirage. Eventually it becomes clear that they are approaching the viewer. This pair walk through the desert with the heat of the sun radiating up to obscure them, followed by waves of dust, and persist in a feat of endurance and implacability, like a march through time. Rather than narrative, this slow-paced experience suggests the artist’s desire to engage with the viewer on a more emotional level.
Finally, the last room holds four works from Viola’s 2014 “Martyrs” series. Based on a long-term installation in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, each “Martyr” video depicts a body being buffeted or otherwise relentlessly trounced by a natural force. For example, in Fire Martyr, above right, a man sits silently in a chair engulfed in flames; the main motion of the film is the constant churning of the fire. Appropriate to the context of the martyr in Catholicism, these images are intended to convey transcendence.