NEW YORK — VIDEO art has made enormous strides in quality over the past few years. Which is another way of saying that other video artists have been catching up with Bill Viola, who has long stood at the creative forefront of his field.
He remains there still with his latest offering, a 56-minute work called "The Passing," which recently made its debut at the Museum of Modern Art in its continuing "Video Premieres" series.
Mr. Viola does not tell stories in his videotapes. Rather he studies, contemplates, and muses on the world in which he lives - the outer world, with its people and landscapes and objects; and the inner world, with its great structures of thought, perception, and possibility. Discerning mystery and beauty in both of these domains, Viola has turned the video camera into a finely tuned instrument of exploration, capable of venturing into uncharted artistic territory and capturing patterns of sight and sound
that are as evocative as they are enigmatic.
"The Passing" is directly concerned with areas of experience at the limits of human consciousness. The main "character" is a man lying in bed and attempting to sleep. Everything we see in the video may be the product of his restless mind as it hovers between awareness of reality and submission to the realm of dreams. Yet many images suggest borderline states far removed from everyday waking or sleeping activity: the moment of birth, represented by views of a newborn baby, and the passage from life to dea th, symbolized by graceful underwater shots.
The sleeper is "played" by Viola himself, and it is safe to surmise that "The Passing" is an attempt to reproduce the evanescence of his own thoughts as they move past the boundaries of ordinary waking life. Drawing on his extraordinary skill as a visual artist, he conjures up the most gossamer moods and associations not only through deliberately dreamlike images - such as bodies floating through air and water - but also through pictures of the real world, including landscapes photographed in arid Wester n locations that contrast vividly with the liquid tones permeating much of the video.
"The Passing" is thus about journeys through space and time as well as excursions into wholly mental states. Some of its real-world images are not pleasant, as when recurring shots chronicle the last days of a dying person, and the conclusion is surprisingly ambiguous in mood. Yet the work's prevailing atmosphere is one of calm and transcendence, suggesting that the rewards of uninhibited imagining are worth striving for even when they entail sadness and pain.
At its most resonant moments, as when the dreamer's face and a craggy landscape become twin aspects of a single intertwined reality, "The Passage" comes close to capturing the unfettered dream-poetry of "Finnegans Wake," the towering James Joyce novel that turns dreaming, sleeping, and waking into complex metaphors for loving, dying, and rebirth. The very murkiness that characterizes some of Viola's strategies - his use of grainy black-and-white imagery, for instance, to evoke the imprecision of dream st ates - recalls the sublime ambiguity of Joyce's punning prose, forever oscillating between the clearly defined and the clearly undefinable.
"The Passage" is a work of extraordinary range, scope, and ambition, marking yet another step forward in Viola's career and in the continuing progress of video art. It deserves to be widely exhibited and seen. It is distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix, based in New York.