Bill Viola: Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994

By Nicky Hamlin

The American video artist Bill Viola has had two major shows in Britain in recent years; at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith in 1988 and the Whitechapel Gallery in 1995. To coincide with the Whitechapel show and a smaller installation at Anthony d’Offay gallery, Thames and Hudson and d’Offay have jointly published Viola’s collected writings.

Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House fails to enhance Viola’s achievement for various reasons. Firstly, it compares badly with other publications in the long and very rich tradition of American artists, writing. Recent issues of the collected essays of the sculptors Robert Morris (October Books/MIT 1993) and Robert Smithson (university of California 1996), for example, show the power and the breadth of artistic thinking in the US. The spectator’s physical/mental relation to the sculpture, and the complex tension between sculpture as object and sculpture as process are meticulously explored in their essays. Video artists like Dan Graham and film makers Stan Brakhage and Peter Gidal have made important theoretical and critical contributions to debates on the politics of vision, voyeurism and representation. Viola’s writings, by contrast are conspicuously lacking in discussions of, or even references to, fellow artists, even where there are obvious common concerns.

Another reason for the weakness of Viola’s writing is in his insistence on the ineffability of his work. Thus he is reluctant in principle to give a detailed account of his aims and intentions. The reader frequently comes up against the rebuttal that there is nothing to say about the work: that it must be experienced. This instance is closely connected to his stress on it as a pathway to the spiritual realm which lies beyond mere appearances.

Viola is therefore hostile to the ‘150 year old French idea of the avant-garde’ which he sees as diverting art away from its transcendental function to a concern with mere appearances. Marcel Duchamp was similarly critical of what he dubbed ‘retinal art’, particularly Impressionism. But whereas Duchamp, as a proto-conceptualist, was thoroughly involved with the ontology of art and the nature of art making, Viola, in various notes, lectures and interviews, consistently steers away from these topics, preferring instead to discuss the thoughts of A.K. Coomaraswamy, St John of the Cross, Jallaludin Rumi, a 13th century Persian Poet and mystic.

Viola’s writings are arranged chronologically. The earliest pieces are the weakest, although the proposals and descriptions of projects made in the 1970s are more interesting and there is no doubting the powerful and sometimes extraordinary qualities of works such as He Weeps for You (1976) and Chott el-Djerid (1979). This is the closest Viola comes to a modernist exploration of audio-visual phenomena and our sensory relationship to the World.

Viola’s model for Art is medieval church painting, which was not ‘Art’ in the modern sense but an instructional device for illiterate congregations and, more importantly for Viola, a gateway through which worshippers could glimpse, perhaps even pass into, the spiritual realm. Viola increasingly sees his own project as restoring this function to art, hence his hostility to recent art and to the proliferation of theorising, with its privileging of language, that has characterised the modern and ‘post-modern periods.

Occasionally Viola has sensible things to say, questioning, for example, the artificial separation between seeing and knowing. After all, the eye is an outpost of the brain and much processing takes place in the retina itself, blurring the distinction between seeing and thinking. But Viola’s work itself does not address this issue in a specific way. His stress is on the importance of the body in acquiring knowledge is also reasonable, but again, his discussion on this topic is extremely cursory compared to Robert Morris’s writings and sculptures, which thoroughly explored the phenomenological relationship between the spectator and sculpture, most notably in the interactive part of his Tate gallery retrospective in 1971.

For those interested in expanding their understanding of Viola’s video work this book will probably disappoint. It is well produced and illustrated, but Viola, while undoubtedly a prolific creator of memorable images, is not really a thinker or writer and, in constantly stressing the ineffability of his work, frustrates any searching discussions of the videos, most noticeably in the interviews towards the end of the book. This can only be an exasperating experience for the reader.