How do you see something that’s not there? It’s a question that Bill Viola, one of the world’s leading video artists, frequently poses. For more than four decades his experimental works have been exhibited in museums and public spaces around the world, many commissioned by institutions like the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, others by the International Olympic Committee in Athens, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and the Doha International Airport in Qatar.
But the pivotal moment in Viola’s career took place in much humbler surroundings. It was 1991, not long after his mother’s death, and he was removing a few objects from the kitchen cupboard. Taking down a small green-and-white bowl, originally a gift from his mother, Viola recalls being flooded with memories and emotions, returning him to the moment when he first received it:
I could feel [my mother’s] hand and see her face, vividly, as she handed it to me that day. At that point, my relationship to material objects changed—completely and irrevocably. . . . After that I looked around and realized that all of the things I was encountering were like this. They each contain the presences and desires of their makers.
For Viola, the otherwise empty bowl becomes a node of connection, charged with the invisible presence of his mother. A similar dynamic informs his video art: moving images, by definition fleeting, intangible, and impermanent, can nevertheless serve as portals into sacred realities that transcend space and time.
While it’s not a full-scale retrospective, I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola, on view at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia through September 15, transports audiences to the heart of the artist’s pioneering inquiries into the phenomenon of visual perception. Curated by longtime admirer John Hanhardt (who commissioned many of Viola’s works, organized prior shows, and wrote a monograph), it’s the first-ever exhibition devoted to video art at the Barnes. Such a setting harmonizes well with Viola’s practice and sensibility, which are formally innovative yet thematically rooted in the European art-historical tradition: just as the Barnes houses classic European paintings within a sleek modern space, so too do Viola’s cutting-edge video installations feature imagery inspired by old masters like Giotto, Jacopo da Pontormo, and Albrecht Dürer. Rather than a chronological survey, the show has the feel of a meditative essay, encouraging visitors to make connections between the works (there are eight on display, their glowing screens spread across five darkened galleries) and spend time pondering the spiritual and theological mysteries evoked by Viola’s art.