It has been a few years since Bill Viola has shown work in New York City. Perhaps in the constant slew of international exhibitions, he forgot about the other coast (Viola lives and works in Long Beach, CA). Fortunately, he remembered, or rather James Cohan Gallery reminded him that a New York show is never a bad idea. This latest exhibition, Moving Stillness, features two of Viola’s major works: Moving Stillness: Mount Rainier (1979) and The Sleepers (1992). The exhibition reminds us why Bill Viola is recognized as a primary innovator in both installation, sound, and video art.  Mount Rainier (1979) and The Sleepers (1992) incorporate mixed media and require a certain level of interaction from the viewer.  As many of Viola’s works do these pieces emphasize water and use it as a metaphor to touch upon themes of human consciousness and the human relationship with the natural world.


The Sleepers (1992) // Photo Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery


Moving Stillness: Mount Rainier (1979) combines a contained body of water, a large-scale projection of Mount Rainier, and subtle audio to immerse the viewer into a scene of Mount Rainier.  However, the piece is not to be admired from afar. To fully experience Moving Stillness: Mount Rainier (1979), the pool of water is stirred by a gallery attendant, which disrupts the red, blue, and green lights being used to project the image of the mountain.  This disruption creates a mesmerizing, periodic ripple which transmits across the image in accordance with the movement of the water. The piece can be read as a meditation on perception and impermanence. The figure of the mountain, which often signifies permanence and strength is disrupted with a slight movement, and subsequently, our perception of the mountain changes.


Moving Stillness: Mount Rainier (1979) // Photo Courtesy of Southern Blain


The Sleepers uses a combination of water and video to create a more disconcerting effect on the viewer.  For the piece, Viola submerges old television monitors, projecting black and white videos of individual sleepers, into seven 55 liter metal barrels filled with water. The barrels sit in a dark room and wires that supposedly attach the monitors to a power source spill out of the barrels.  Each video depicts an individual’s journey through asleep.  The sleeper’s expressions change, and they often stir, but they never awaken. The submersion of these images creates a somewhat uncomfortable, voyeuristic experience for the viewer and isolates the sleeper from the outside world.


The Sleepers (1992) // Photo Courtesy of James Cohan Gallery


For those unfamiliar with Viola and his work, he was at the forefront of experimental video and video installation work in the early 1970’s.  His influence on contemporary video and mixed-media work has been profound.  Viola’s resume is extensive, and his work has been shown across the world since the early 1970’s.  Much of Viola’s work is influenced by Eastern and Islamic mysticism, and inquiries into major, unanswerable existential questions. Although, Viola rejected his Christian roots while young, a significant portion of his work also explores themes and symbols common in Christianity and Christian mysticism.


Moving Stillness is open to the public through April 14, 2018 at James Cohan Gallery, 533 West 26th St, NYC.


top image // courtesy of James Cohan Gallery