When in Florence, what does one do? You fight the crowds of tourists, join never-ending lines, and check items off of your list of must-see monuments. At least, that’s the way I felt when I was there this month with a group of students. I know there are many other ways to experience Florence, and many little out of the way places that don’t make it onto the tour groups itineraries, but as we were to be there for only 24 hours, I didn’t have the time to explore. I confess I was feeling pretty cynical and grumpy about the whole thing. However, when I arrived in the city (on a ridiculously hot and sticky day), I noticed that all of the city buses were covered with posters for a Bill Viola exhibit. In my grumpiness, I had not even taken the time to research anything out of the ordinary that might be on display. I immediately decided to ditch the Uffizi Gallery for this exhibition. I’m so glad I did.
I have seen only a few of Bill Viola’s works in person before; most of my knowledge of his work is through watching them on a computer, which is not the same thing at all. A pioneer of video art, his works are often very large scale, combining sound, performance, and technology in uniquely immersive environments. What I didn’t know is that from 1974 to 1976, Viola worked in Florence as the technical director of arts/tapes/22, a video production center. Building on his relationship with the city and the history and art of the region, the current exhibition, Electronic Renaissance, is based at the Palazzo Strozzi (with partnerships with other museums and venues in the area) and combines a selected retrospective of his works with various Renaissance works, some of which have served as inspiration for the artist.
The Palazzo Strozzi is a grand building, filled with enormous rooms with soaring ceilings. It’s not very human-scaled, but Viola’s oversized video pieces are perfectly at home here. In many cases, his work is paired with, or adjacent to, a Renaissance piece that creates an effective dialogue spanning 500 plus years. One fabulous installation example is the pairing of Paolo Uccello’s The Flood and Receding of the Waters (c.1439-40) with Viola’s The Deluge (Going Forth By Day), 2002. The Uccello is a removed section of a fresco, a semi-circle, which is installed over a wide doorway to another room. To view The Deluge, which is an enormous, 5-panel work, you must pass under Uccello’s fresco. The Deluge is a long piece, 36 minutes, and depicts a street scene, a sidewalk in front of a Renaissance-esque façade. An open doorway is at center, and people move left and right on the sidewalk, enter and leave the building, all in super slow motion. It’s utterly engrossing – it’s like you’re sitting at a sidewalk café opposite and watching this tide of humanity. It’s the ultimate people watching experience, and the characters become allegories of a range of human traits – indifference, kindness, preoccupation, joy, sorrow - moving along until the inevitable, dramatic end. I could have watched it over and over.
Many of Viola’s works focus on a single, isolated figure – his superb two-sided piece The Crossing (1996) is installed in the first room you enter in the exhibition, and his classic The Reflecting Pool (1977-9) is always a joy to watch. But I found the works I responded to the most depicted a kind of interaction that pulled me in and made me look closer, like The Deluge in all its voyeuristic splendor. The Greeting (1995) also had this quality. At first I almost passed it by – it is displayed adjacent to the Pontormo painting Visitation (c. 1528-9) and appears at first to be simply a contemporary rehash of Visitation, a slow-mo moving picture. But as I sat and watched the performance play out (this is a silent piece), I was again drawn into this intricate human study. Two women are conversing on a street, and they encounter a third woman, who stops to talk. Seems simple enough. But as you watch the video, the extreme slowness of the speed allows you to see every minute flicker of emotion on the faces of the women. Affection, deference, delight, dismay, jealousy, and hurt all play out over the course of the 10-minute piece, ad this is on just one of the faces. An everyday event becomes an intensely revealing moment, and more than a little heartbreaking. Another work I loved was revealing in another way – Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity (2013) in which a video diptych is projected on large vertical slabs of black granite. Paired with Lukas Cranach’s two paintings, Adam and Eve (1528), Viola’s Adam and Eve aren’t nubile and glistening like Cranach’s, but aged and wrinkled, each absorbed in slowly examining their own bodies with a small flashlight. It’s eerie and wonderful, and the bodies of the man and woman seem to glow with an interior light in addition to the moving light of the flashlight.
Most of Viola’s older work is located downstairs, in the Strozzina, a much less grand space, low ceilinged and forgettable. It’s a shame, as some of the works on display, like The Reflecting Pool and Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) (1979-81) are really spectacular and deserve more attention, and could easily hold their own with the more recent, HD color work. Many of his earlier black and white works on videotape are displayed here as well, but while they are interesting to lovers of video art and experimental film, they appear as afterthoughts, perhaps out of a desire to present a comprehensive catalogue of Viola’s work more than a true consideration of whether they belonged in this exhibition.
Even with this misstep of sticking Viola’s early work in the basement, so to speak, this is a phenomenal exhibition. I realize Florence isn’t accessible to everyone, but if you find yourself there during the month of July, run to see Electronic Renaissance. And plan to spend an afternoon there.
Bill Viola – Electronic Renaissance
10 March – 23 July, 2017
Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi
All Images courtesy Bill Viola Studio
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.