Seniors at Carleton get to enjoy a process called ‘comps’ (a ‘comprehensive project’ for one’s major), and for the CAMS department, part of this entails (quickly!) writing a sizable paper on an ‘Object of Analysis’ that is specially selected for each senior comps student. My object is Bill Viola’s Hatsu-Yume, a 56 minute video piece he created in Japan in 1981 as part of his artistic residency with Sony Corporation, immediately following a year and a half of Zen Buddhist study with the priest Daien Tanaka as part of a cultural exchange between the U.S. and Japan.
The work, the first ten minutes of which are viewable above, is beautiful and mesmerizing in itself, but I recently made a discovery about the increasingly uncanny way in which Hatsu-yume is proving to be the best possible object that the CAMS faculty could have gifted me with:
I was transfixed by Bill Viola before I knew I had been, before I began to watch Hatsu-yume. And then I was transfixed again.
Last spring, while I was on the study abroad OCS New Media Roadtrip in Europe, we made a stop at the ARoS museum in Arhus, Denmark, on our 3-day bus-tour of the country, after 8 weeks of cultural and artistic and aesthetic sensory overload across the continent of Europe. We were taken on a quick tour of the museum’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary art, including a visit to the ‘basement’ of installation art.
Once we were let loose to wander the remainder of the museum, I found myself drawn back to the massive dark room, the first we had visited in the basement, where a complex rushing soundscape enveloped the ears and 5 giant screens punctuated the darkness, each with a color-scaled video loop of eerily slow and life-sized bodies plunging, periodically in or out of the water on the screen. Each plunge or flight – it was hard to distinguish, gravity was unleashed in this underwater-like world – was proceeded or accompanied by a particularly powerful build and rush of sound, like waterfalls, but eerie. This was Five Angels for the Millennium – and until a few days ago, after having received my copy of Hatsu-yume and watching it twice and beginning to investigate this Bill Viola fellow – I had not realized who the artist was whose work had held me so transfixed that day in Denmark.
I didn’t leave that installation until it was time to get lunch and re-board the bus to continue our encircling of the vastness of Denmark – I lay among Five Angels for the Millennium and let the almost prenatal feeling of the sound wash over me, as I wrestled my fear and fascination with the bodies and bodies of water, the ‘five angels’ that came in and out of the room almost at random. There was terror and awe in the work, a sense of death but also life, an uncertainty that bred a desire to stay, to find some impirical way to make sense of the world Viola had created – it was, at the same time, profoundly spiritual, in a way that left me drained and fulfilled.
Having known (now that I know that I knew it already) the work of this amazing artist so intimately, it is no wonder that I should find myself equally transfixed by Hatsu-Yume. It uses ‘ambient’ (I use this term with great caution and trepidation) sound in similar ways, to create a tension that synchretically adds value to the images, but is, in essence, essential to their power as driving, rhythmic forces. The boundary between sound/image, the way they interact to exert a strange holistic power on the senses, is very much at play in Viola’s oeuvre. There is also something religious about both pieces – a religion of light and sound, if you will. And both have captured me entirely.