It’s a cool night and leaving the car you walk to St Carthage’s, a small church in leafy Parkville. A smallish group is converging, stamping their feet and turning their heads to the sky. You wait a few minutes until the usher beckons you forward. I hear a muffled thunder as if many people are leaving, but only three exit the front door. It’s like pitch inside and the noise is now a roar — I look up from my feet and see the source of the yellow light — where a crucifix might hang is an image twenty feet high: of a figure black against a roiling wall of flame — the sound is that of fire eating air …


A part conversion

Fire Woman is something to marvel at, or be entranced by. It goes for ten minutes: the figure — a medieval monk, a man, a woman? does very little but sway, until eventually she gracefully raises her arms and seems to dive into a pool of fire or water — then the flames somehow mutate into a dark rippling surface reflecting deep blues and reds. I’m not sure if the noise has stopped, or if it just roars on in my head.

Bill Viola, almost 60, is the grand old guy of video art, since the death of Nam June Paik. I’ve never been a such great fan of Viola, for a complex of reasons. This piece, from 2005, has moved me to rethink my feelings (or refeel my thoughts) about his work. It has all his good stuff: a simple but powerful visual idea, religious atmospherics, superb technique and execution of great elegance.

His brief statement on the intent of the piece is not helpful. The artist mumbles:

an image seen in the mind’s eye of a dying man … when the flames of passion and fever finally engulf the inner eye, and the realisation that desire’s body will never again be met blinds the seer, the reflecting surface is shattered and collapses into its essential form-undulating wave patterns of light.

Best to fall back into reverie: church … flames … hell … monk … ritual … He that findeth his life shall lose it (Matthew 10:39) … a dream of returning to nothingness … purification … transcendence. Easy to be haunted in the dark belly of a church.

Tristan’s Ascension: That piece is followed by another in a loop, almost its mirror world, wherein a man lies in profile on a slab, his wet robe clinging. It’s all in shades of charcoal and silver, with small dots of white that spirit up the screen against the black space. Minutes of slow silence become a gathering impulse as dots fly up and we understand they are droplets, which grows into streams of water flowing from the ground, the slab, the sleeping body, up into the air. The sound becomes a furious crashing as a waterfall, or water rise, rushes up, erupts upwards, from the body and ground. Until the supine body, too, is lifted, puppet awkward, into the hoovering heavens.

It’s almost as good as its pendant piece.

And if you want to catch them, their last showing is this Saturday night, October 23.

+ + +


The Raft

Which leaves the other grand piece, The Raft, showing at ACMI until February next year. In a dark room we face a screen of life-sized people, nineteen in all, answering a casting call for a UN video promoting multiculturalism (or maybe an old Benetton ad). It’s shot in slo-mo, and the first five of the ten minutes duration is spent watching the group increase by a few, and observing the understated interactions between bored folk waiting for something. It turns out to be a cyclone named Godot, which sweeps in from the left and then the right, barraging the fellow strangers in a horizontal cascade, still in slow-motion, until they are left dripping upon the ground.

This has been meditated on supersensitively and with great appreciation by Alison Croggon on her blog, Theatre Notes. She writes:

I find Bill Viola’s video art shattering … Even so, I was totally unprepared for The Raft, a video work of apparently transparent simplicity which somehow expresses all human sorrow. How does he do it?

You almost feel the shock when the water impacts on these bodies the flailing bodies in Viola’s slow-motion are as graceful as the classical nudes in Géricault’s painting, but here translated into a heightened sense of the ordinary that also makes them immediately familiar … it recalls news images of catastrophe — the stunned survivors of the London Underground bombings, the floods of New Orleans … Maybe it is simply that The Raft is so nakedly exposing, both as a work of art and as an observation of people … Seldom is simplicity this profound.


I can’t quite agree with Croggon. I think The Raft is a great piece: great in its presence and impact, and it is highly watchable (I viewed four repeats). But I am not yet willing to name this simplicity profound, nor that it encompasses all sorrow. I do think her response is profound. She has met Viola’s art with her poetic instincts (Croggon is an accomplished poet). And that’s one of the finer things about Viola’s work — his moving images can be read as allegory or metaphor, but you can also just look at them: nineteen people in a confined space being subjected to the brute force of high pressure jets: how do they get from here — bored and upright, to there — crawling and shaken. It’s not a film or a play — no narrative to speak of; it’s a bit more than a tone poem — too eventful; it’s more like a fragment of dream, designed by an artist with an idee fixe.


The town critic’s dissent: farce, cruel, silly, obvious, corny, spiritual bombast

And then we have the review by Robert Nelson, art critic for the Age. (Oct. 20, seemingly not online, thus the rather long quotes.) He thinks The Raft ‘unwittingly slips into farce.’

… the onrush of water … is gratuitous, a staged execution of performers to capture the pathology of their disorientation. It isn’t nature that knocks them about but the artist. The work doesn’t suspend disbelief and we’re left with a slightly cruel and silly spectacle.

Having sunk The Raft, he extinguishes Fire Woman and friend:

The same aesthetic peril wrecks the videos at St Carthage’s … In Tristan’s Ascension, where a body is sucked up into heaven, I found it hard not to think about the technical elements of the illusion, like the gushing water played in reverse. So while great cosmic energies are invoked by the mystic deluge, I can only see the manipulation of footage with software … Fire Woman is similar. Amid much loudness and fury, I’m worried about ending up in a furnace with the ghostly female silhouette. I get a shock when she jumps into water and doesn’t re-emerge. But because there’s no narrative around this matyrdom — as there would be in a film — the iconic vignette seems unconvincingly staged …

He then genuflects to status and institutions:

Viola is a giant of the contemporary scene and the Melbourne Festival and Kaldor Public Art Projects did well to get him to Melbourne. At ACMI Viola spoke of his interests in death and transcendence and came across as an artist genuinely dealing with spirituality and eternity.

Finally, the boot:

But eternity doesn’t reciprocate; and his imposing videos falter on the iconic machinery of the medium. In their desire to express a cosmic ontology, they fail to create an aesthetic reality  … They collapse for want of narrative. The symbolic content is obvious and corny … with big sound and slo-mo, he puts impossible pressure on the credibilty of the action. The aesthetic stress leaves little to survive but spiritual bombast.

Thus spake the critic.

Bombast, but hey, Bob …

Certainly Robert Nelson can say that he can’t suspend disbelief — though actually he says it is “the work” that doesn’t suspend disbelief. And he can adduce from the wet and bedraggled actors that this work is “cruel.” And also because it’s not nature wild but deliberate art, it is “silly.”

And that he found it “hard not to think about technical elements.” Or that he can only see “the manipulation.” Or that he really, really wants narrative when there are moving pictures. Poor man — from the persistent plaints, he evidently has no idea what’s going on — What if I end up with Fire Woman in the furnace? Hey, where did she go? *shock* Why doesn’t she come back!?

Or that he can even speak for “eternity.” Wow!

But you know what? I think Assoc. Prof. Nelson should take a have a drink and chill. Be like the Raft people, take a bath, get shook up. Get outta your head, live a little. Don’t make it such a job, Bob. Don’t forget to mmm empathise. Reading your review, you sound real tight ... don’t want to get ill, coming on so hard-arsed, so in control of your brain functions. Be tender, bro.

Anyway, if you don’t loosen up, I’m not taking you to the pictures, ‘cos you’ll keep nattering on about how you can’t suspend disbelief; or tracking all the twists and turns of the narrative; or being overwhelmed by all the technical elements — jezus, did ya see that, that footage was all softwared, CGI-ed! And how the director is manipulating all these scripts and props and effects, and is even slightly cruel the way he’s forcing Leonardo di Caprio into, geez, acting.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.