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Byline: Rob Lowman Entertainment Editor

As you stand in the darkened room at the Getty Museum before Bill Viola's ``The Quintet of the Astonished,'' you might at first think it's a still life. Projected on the 4 1/2-foot-high, 8-foot-wide high-definition screen are five people, each in a different but highly emotional state. It soon dawns on you, though, that these people are in motion - a slow blink or a slight gesture may have given it away. But video artist Viola does not have his actors (yes, they are actors) performing in slow pantomime. Instead, he has shot ``a wave'' of emotion on high-speed film in one continuous take - which, when played at normal speed, takes about 15 minutes.

The effects are startling. What might at first seem an interesting composition can become interactive. If you observe these highly elevated images of pathos unfold for any length of time, you may find yourself drawn in, reacting to them as though they were alive.

What is also startling is how the exhibition, ``Bill Viola: The Passion,'' seems a perfect fit for the Getty. Viola seems the most high- tech of artists, while the institution is known for its dedication to the old masters before 1900. The Getty, however, does spotlight contemporary artists in special exhibitions like this one, but Viola's works speak to the art already in the museum's collection.

The exhibit, which opened Friday at the Getty, consists of 13 recent pieces that have never before been displayed on the West Coast. The collection includes large projections but also smaller LCD and plasma flat- panel displays.

How the exhibition connects to the Getty's older devotional works is implied in the title, ``The Passions.'' Besides its obvious implication of artistic ardor, it can be seen referring to the Passion Cycle in Christian art, which is about events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Take Viola's inspiration for ``Quintet,'' a circa-1500 painting by Hieronymous Bosch called ``Christ Mocked.'' It showed, as the Long Beach-based artist puts it, ``Jesus and four creepy characters about to torture him.'' (``Quintet'' would fit perfectly at the Getty, but it resides in the National Gallery in London, which commissioned the work from Viola in 1998.)

Coincidently, Viola was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute at the time and had been focusing on devotional works. Viola saw these old works as alive. Those works from hundreds of years ago, he says, ``are living beings, and they can teach us tremendously.''

Among the things that he focused on during his stint at the Getty were facial expressions in art history and various religious images, including Christian ones, all of which found their way into Viola's current exhibition.

``Bill is interested in his Christian background and traditions,'' says John Walsh, director emeritus at the Getty and exhibit curator. ``But he's trying to distance the content from the affect. These are images that have suggestive power and ambiguity to elicit different readings.''

In describing one devotional painting, Viola refers to the figure in the work as being influenced by ``invisible presences that we keep with us - that exist outside of time and outside of optics.''

Invisible presences resonate in Viola's works. Often - as in ``Observance,'' where a stream of people move forward, overcome with emotion - the reason for the reaction is out of the frame. Or, as in ``Silent Mountain,'' the source of the anguish is not apparent.

Certainly, Viola has gone through his own emotional highs and lows. In 1989, his first son, Blake, was born to Viola and his wife and collaborator, Kira Petrov. In 1991, Viola's mother died. Nine months later, son Andrei was born. In 1999, his father died.

``I was driven to explore these personal experiences more,'' Viola says. ``It seemed very natural to narrow my focus down, in terms of the subject my camera was shooting, to an individual person. Having a family, witnessing and experiencing the death of my parents focused me down. The light turned to a more narrow beam in my life.

``The current work is about observing the effect of those great, universal themes on us as individuals,'' Viola adds. ``What happens to you when your mother dies? The expressions on your face, the emotions you're feeling, are going to be quite dramatic and overwhelming at times.''

So, when Viola says, ``First and foremost, this body of work is about suffering - the human condition of suffering,'' you get the passion involved. (Passio, it should be noted, is Latin for suffering.)

``What I've always liked about his work is the intelligence and intense engagement with technology for the sake of doing something potentially transcendent,'' says David A. Ross, former deputy director and chief curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art, where many of Viola's works appeared from 1975 to 1984.

``He believes that art is powerful and important. Bill's work is always the work of a believer in the power of art,'' Ross says. ``At a time when art was becoming increasingly cynical (and) the art world was becoming more about power (and) prestige, Bill was and remains a complete breath of fresh air.''

Although Viola has created more than 150 works focusing on universal human experiences and has a wide range of artistic as well as spiritual interests, he stresses he was not interested in ``re-creating or restating themes.''

``I've spent some of my most profound moments of my life in front of these older artworks,'' says the 51-year-old New York City native. ``But, at a certain point, you close the door, you turn away from the picture and you leave it. And then it grows inside you and becomes something on your own terms.''

One of the works that the Getty commissioned, ``Emergence,'' for instance, was inspired by Masolino's 1424 fresco ``Pieta,'' a scene of the Resurrection, but in Viola's work it takes on added meanings, including birth and death, with water pouring from a well as a young man emerges from it into the arms of two women. Despite his interest in Christian images, Viola is primarily looking for universal themes as studied in other spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism.

Christianity, as he points out, doesn't own the rights to the Resurrection or Crucifixion. ``These images have been utilized by all great religions.''

The process involved in making such works as ``Emergence'' is a complicated one. ``Quintet,'' for instance, included two weeks of rehearsals for the actors. The reason he uses theater people is ``because one of the things we were going to do at that moment was turn the camera on and not turn it off.''

He gave each of the actors an emotion to portray, but none of them ever knew what the others were doing. Nor were they to react to each other. The actor in the center was told to act rapturous, but Viola is still not sure what the actor on the left was doing, since he left him to his own devices.

The scene was shot over two days, with Viola aided by his crew, directing ``the wave'' of emotion, starting neutral, building up, peaking, then threatening to overwhelm before subsiding. The scene was shot over and over until Viola found what he wanted. He then spent about 20 hours in the editing room doing color correction and adding highlights.

And even though Viola directs the scene, he, too, is surprised by what he finds when he views it on film. ``You can't possibly see all the little things,'' he says, ``which become monumental events on the screen, lasting seconds and seconds and seconds.'' Sometimes, he notes, they are an unexpected ``beautiful gift.''

So, in a way, Viola gets to experience what he hopes you will when looking at his works, which is to bring your own story to them.

``Why are these people doing what they are doing? We don't know why these people are crying. We are looking into these worlds of private moments, but we are having our own private moments, too.''

Adding, ``If my work exists anywhere, it's in the memory of the person who sees it. People have to be able to use it like a poem you go back to that gives you insight.''

Staff writer Phillip Zonkel contributed to this story.


Where: The Getty, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles.

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Through April 27.

Tickets: Admission is free; parking is $5 per car (reservations required on weekdays before 4 p.m.). Information: (310) 440-7300 or


7 photos


(1 -- 2 -- cover -- color) Passionate expression

Religious imagery inspires video artist Bill Viola's moving exhibit at the Getty

(3) Bill Viola, left, and Getty director emeritus John Walsh discuss ``Dolorosa.''

Larry Enright/Staff Photographer


(5 -- color) ``EMERGENCE''

(6 -- color) ``SIX HEADS''

(7 -- color) ``SURRENDER''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 30, 2003

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