l'art d'être · laureen andalib

On Bill Viola’s “Video Black– The Mortality of the Image”

Bill Viola, “Ascension” (two-minute clip) from Wadsworth Atheneum on Vimeo.


“Without a memory to give it life, events flicker across its image surface with only a split second to linger as afterimages, disappearing forever without a trace.”

• • •

In his compelling essay, Video Black– The Mortality of Image, Bill Viola addresses an aspect of the moving image that is often left understated: the birth and mortality which signifies the beginnings and endings to the video itself (conventionally incorporated for a few fleeting seconds), and dominated exclusively by the “either/or” of two, powerfully opposing colors: white, or, more importantly, black.

The content of the moving image perpetuates in the tension of incidental moments in time versus the evoked nostalgia from the past. Viola asserts that the camera, the “perpetual observer,” indeed has no stories to tell– it is a lifeless object that merely presents itself as a vessel to translate (mechanically), what it once recorded, having no sense of the past or future. He further dissects the “creation” of what the camera births, however, into four categories: the eternal image, the temporal image, the temporary image, and the last image– the last image, which explores the implications of the endless, “video black.”

In presenting the eternal image, Viola proposes that the eternal image, if considered as an object, has the potential to become an icon through years of “build up”: residue which accumulates in timelessness and the rate of utilization. This iconism is not to be confused with the “icon” in popular culture, however, as Viola further asserts that icons can only translate success if they constantly provide relevance to the “Now”– or the present. Though he also mentions that these icons maintain some sort of consistency, I assume, in relation to video art, that this consistency is dependent upon the material texture of the moving image itself, where the consistency of its material is also marked by the veneration of its historical identity. If preserved well over centuries, the antiquity of the film, the vintage-like aspect of cinema, or even the limited aspect-ratio in the growing history of video can be seen as this consistency, if left un-altered, with the potential to be “worshipped” (in regards to Viola) because of its texture or stylistic quality of the movement it lives in. In this way, the ideology of iconism transforms into a process or condition rather than the physical characteristics of the object itself.

The second ideology Viola presents is the temporal image, which is introduced through Viola’s analogy of “artificial image-making” to the concept of perspective in painting, when it was introduced by medieval artist, Filippo Brunelleschi:

“What Brunelleschi achieved was the personification of the image, the creation of “point of view” and its identification with a place in real space. In doing so, he elevated the position of the individual viewer to an integral part of the by encoding this presence as the inverse, in absentia, source of the converging perspectival lines.”

Thus, the notion of the viewer’s relationship to the moving image operates only because of temporality. It is the potential of the changing relationship of the viewer to the image that makes the moving image compelling, as, in regards to Viola’s analogy to painting,”picture became an opaque mirror for the viewer, and the viewer, in turn, became the embodiment of the painter…” The moving image, as in perspective-driven painting, becomes a virtual void and reflection– an interactive mirror for the “video art viewer” to stop and understand, yet subconsciously be “on the move.” As Viola states,”time itself has become the materia prima of the art of the moving image… The conceptual and physical becomes equal, experience becomes language, and concreteness emerges from an abstract and metaphysical nature of the medium.”

• • •

The “black”of the video haunts us with the temporal tension between the time the video is trying to encapsulate, versus the time in which we are trying to watch it– the supposed “real time.” Viola draws on this theory by tracing the historical implications of the color black, first, by drawing on the cultural associations of it as a “color of mourning,” a condition of the “absence of light,” and the focal point which “lives in the pupil of our eye.”

However, the problem is that black, like the color white, often acts as a void. Though unintentional, it acts as a distraction which allows us to drift away into an endless realm, or a clear-cut “cue” that the end is the end, or the beginning is about to start. In a way, the color is neutral, because the sensations it causes are not as invigorating as other colors of the spectrum, say, when we perceive pink, or blue. Similar to the concept of the mirror, and in relation to the concept of the “black pupil,” Viola mentions that the pupil becomes a veil to both internal and external vision. As the infamous concept of the gaze (Laura Mulvey) is also brought to attention, Viola explores the black of the eye has often been a vessel for one to see one’s own self-image, as well as the growing, “infinite reflection” by looking into another’s pupil: 

“Socrates describes the process of acquiring self-knowledge from the contemplation of the self in the pupil of another eye, or the reflection of one’s own.”

In the process of embracing black, Viola seems to propose that four states of consciousness allow this color to exist artistically: speculation (which literally means “mirror gazing”) is compared to contemplation, and meditation, as well as and concentration, become essential to the process of centering and focusing oneself. The irony however is that black also represents nothingness. In Persian cosmology, Viola mentions that black also exists as a color considered to be “higher” than white in the universal color scheme. He thus concludes:

“So black becomes a bright light on a dark day, the intense light bringing the protective darkness of the closed eye; the black of the annihilation of the self.”

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On Bill Viola’s “Video Black– The Mortality of the Image”

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