All Art is Contemporary

A Review of Bill Viola’s “Electronic Renaissance” Exhibition in Florence

/ by Elisa Biagini

It is 1973, and a young American artist walks through the streets and museums of Florence. As stated in the catalogue published by Centro Di that same year, Bill Viola was born in New York in 1951 and lives in Florence. He has been called for 18 months to become the technical director at Art / Tapes / 22, one of the world's first video art studios, run by Maria Gloria Bicocchi who, in those years, will welcome other relevant figures, such as Kounellis, Acconci and Beuys. Even back then, Viola wrote about how the video medium was changing very rapidly, and was fascinated by the question of eye-brain perception: He was already attracted and stimulated to tell the invisible world of feeling.


2017: The artist, who has become one of the most famous names in contemporary art, is back in Florence for his retrospective “Electronic Renaissance,” at the historical Palazzo Strozzi (it ran until July 23). More than twenty video installations, dealing with spirituality, experience and perception, exploring the energies of nature: Water and fire, light and darkness, life and death (and rebirth). The peculiarity of this exhibition is given by the inclusion of many of the artworks of the past that so influenced Viola, from Masolino to Paolo Uccello, just to name a few, to stress the continuity of an investigation into empathy and the sacredness of the everyday that dates to the time of Giotto: In the words of the American artist, “I didn't mean to create a parody or a reproduction. They are models.” Art becomes, therefore, a tool of transformation, a physical experience of the dynamics of perception, of the nature of time. “If you want to understand time, stop moving,” because fast and slow are relative concepts, and time is based on our heartbeat. Other pieces are displayed in several museums throughout the city (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Museo di Santa Maria Novella) and I would like, instead of describing some of them, to focus my attention on one in particular, currently part of the collection of self-portraits of the Uffizi Gallery, located in the Corridoio Vasariano.

This work, called Self Portrait-Submerged, like all of his production in recent years, is presented on a vertically hanging plasma screen (to remind us of the old paintings of Pontormo or Grünwald, of which he is so fond, that suddenly come to life). In it, accompanied by the sound of flowing water and with a background of river pebbles, we can observe Viola, with his eyes closed, wearing an elegant blue shirt and a "Buddhist rosary" around his neck. A submerged man, immersed in slightly rippled water: The fact that water is linked to the concepts of birth and death, of transience, had already been told by the Presocratic Empedocles in “Purifications” - that it might as well be the title of one of Viola’s works - as this substance is unborn and eternally equal. And central is this theme to Buddhist thought, very dear to Viola (who is, in fact, depicted wearing a juzu). But it is in Bachelard and in his “L'eau et les rêves” (1942) that we find some fundamental observations useful in understanding, in my opinion, the work that Viola has undertaken on water for years (as already visible in '96 in The Crossing and then in Transfigurations in 2008, just to mention two of the most touching among his video pieces). Water is, in fact, a perfect transducer that allows metamorphosis, fluidity being the ideal movement of becoming (with an undulation that resembles that of meditation): It is an element that cradles and puts us to sleep, but can also kill us (and the closed eyes of this man can’t help but provoke the question of whether he is gently resting or if he is dead, a la Ophelia.

One immediately thinks about Foucault and his "aquatic communion" with the cosmos, happening at his best in dreams, where "a man meets his own death." Water is a mirror (as in Reflecting Pool, a video created between '77 and '79) where we can find ourselves or where we can get lost, a space one has to cross to gain a deeper knowledge, where abandonment is total and, therefore, feeling is at its apex. The artist, in an interview, says that, as a boy, he almost drowned: "The underwater world seemed wonderful, full of light, quiet, color. Only later, after being rescued, fear began and I started shouting." Immersion is the crossing of a threshold, it is entering into the flow of time, in the fluidity of the world, feeling ourselves in it, even in the moment of passing - perceived as natural, not tragic - because we are part of a whole that flows infinitely. Realized with sophisticated video cameras, capable of slowing motion so precisely that movements look liquid, telling us about the subtle shades of our feelings in an "objective" way, his works frequently have the special ability to generate another kind of water: That of our tears.

Elisa Biagini

born in Florence in 1970, has lived, studied and taught in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. at Rutgers University, taught Italian there and also taught at Columbia University and New York University. She translated Louise Glück, Sharon Olds and other American poets into Italian for the anthology Nuovi Poeti Americani (Einaudi, 2006), and her translation of Gerry LaFemina's collection, The Parakeets of Brooklyn, won the Bordighera Prize in 2003; it was published by Bordighera in a bilingual edition the next year.

Her poetry has been translated into a dozen languages or more, including French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese.

Elisa Biagini lives in Florence and teaches creative writing, literature and art history in Italy and abroad.