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Time Passages 

Bill Viola's slow-motion video art installation at NCMA plays with the viewer's sense of time

In much of his work, California-based video artist Bill Viola has used slow motion to amplify and examine visceral expressions of emotion. By simply slowing down his videos, he illuminates our emotions' temporal elasticity. "The more you magnify [emotions]," he said in a 1999 symposium at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, the more "they just open up infinitely."

Viola's Quintet of Remembrance was installed in the European Gallery at the North Carolina Museum of Art last October--an apt placement, since the film's composition was influenced by the European masters. But tucked away from the main traffic in the museum, Quartet has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Visitors to the museum should deliberately seek it out.

Quintet is a 15-minute video, running on a loop on a flat-screened high-definition television, showing two men and three women looking at something off screen, each reacting in a different way. Sometimes expressing shock, sometimes sadness, sometimes bafflement and sometimes disbelief, the characters in the video move in extreme slow motion. Ideally, the film would be projected in a darkened room, but the space at NCMA doesn't permit such an arrangement. John Coffey, deputy director of Collections and Programs, says that Quintet will probably end up in the Contemporary Gallery and will eventually be shown in its preferred format when space and budget permit.

Viola, widely recognized as a pioneer and innovator of video art, often works in slow motion because some experiences, like the time it "takes a mountain to be created and then to wear down" occur too slowly for us to think about, while others occur too fast. By using slow motion, Viola says he is "taking part of nature that's at a different rate to our thinking and bringing it into the range of thinking so that we can ... have a relationship with that."

Viola has spoken most directly about his use of slow motion when referring to his 1987 work, Passage, a key part of the Whitney-collected survey of his work. In Passage, the artist began by videotaping the birthday party of a 4-year-old girl. Working with four hours of footage, he edited the event into a digestible 26-minute film, approximately the length of an average sitcom. With this version, he had efficiently packaged an approximate record of the afternoon.

But then Viola slowed down this 26 minutes 16 times, resulting in a seven-hour piece with which he created an installation that forces the viewer to walk down a narrow corridor, where he comes upon a small room in which the video is projected. The original soundtrack, also expanded to 16 times its original length, plays along with the images.

Viola himself was surprised by some of the results. Describing the birthday girl's reaction in the film when a cake is brought out, Viola says, "When I slowed that down 16 times and that one second of joy became 16 seconds of joy, the emotion was extended too." Perhaps the most moving part of Viola's work has to do with this moment, when he "realized human emotions have infinite resolution."

This limitlessness is captured more deliberately in Quintet, as Viola works with a staged set-up rather than documentary footage, and the emotions are acted rather than incidentally captured, as in Passage. While moments in Passage are slowed in order to let our thoughts catch up with them, the passing of time in Quintet occurs in one long nuanced shot unfolding slowly. Each character's emotional transition takes place very gradually. While this sometimes allows the viewer to pinpoint the exact moment a character starts to express something new, it can also blur that distinction. It's tempting to keep your eye on one character to pinpoint that transition, but it's equally impossible to ignore the other characters. Because of the extreme slow motion, however, any sense of transition is almost eliminated, and Viola enters his preferred realm of the subjective passage of time. You should too, now at the NCMA. EndBlock

  • Bill Viola's video art installation plays with the viewer's sense of time.

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