High-tech meets the sublime

In every time, artists have tried to bring together old subject-matter with up-to-date techniques. Working with video, computers, and synthesized music, Los Angeles artist Bill Viola tries to elicit uncommon states of awareness resembling the experiences of religious mystics.

Mr. Viola thinks of his creations as homemade instruments for transcending the limitations of everyday secular reality. He enlists the high-tech razzle-dazzle of today instead of reworking sacred images familiar (and perhaps too familiar) after centuries of refinement.

His video/sound installation "The Crossing" displays two images of a walking man, projected larger than life in a darkened room. Both images disappear, one behind a sheet of pouring water, the other behind a sheet of flames. The disappearance may refer to the death of the self associated with spiritual rebirth in many religions. But the specific image Viola chose, inspired by a quote from the Islamic poet Rumi, must stand or fall on its own merits, without the easy acceptance accorded to buddhas or madonnas.

Viola's attempt to redeem the technology of industrial display in support of the sacred goes back to the 1963-64 World's Fair in New York, which he recalls as one darkened room after another, filled with gigantic projected images. Since then, as a mature artist of high reputation, he has undertaken to evoke religious-type experiences by using means familiar to us from trade shows and television.

While the results do not always transcend the flashiness of their technology, which was developed for big business, Viola's installations are quite magical when they succeed. And, when we consider how much of today's art reflects a culture of diminished expectations, Bill Viola's attempt to show us a larger and deeper world can seem magical in itself.

"Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey" is a brilliant retrospective organized by the Whitney Museum in New York. It opened Oct. 16 at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be on display until Jan. 9, 2000.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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