by Andrew Baker
The first time I went to The Museum of Modern Art was for a Gerhard Richter retrospective in the winter of 2002. It was my final semester of college, and a couple of friends and I had made the drive up from Greensboro to visit some grad schools, see some art, and to become better acquainted with the city. Looking back, the experience is a bit of a blur (rim shot). We had gone to MoMA at the end of long and exhausting day that we'd spent at the Met, which happened to also be a suggested donation evening. Unlike the Met , MoMA is almost always an unavoidably expensive place to go (currently $20 required admission), but for a couple of hours on Friday evenings the museum is opened up to a suggested admission price, and these are reliably the busiest times you will ever see the place. On that evening, for one reason or another, public access to the permanent collection had been closed off, meaning that all comers were being filed through the handful of galleries that housed the Richter pictures. It was a mad house; way too crowded to feel comfortable stopping to look, so nobody really did. We all just sort of walked through, giving each picture a cursory read and moving on to the next and the next and the next, until we were let out into the gift shop. I didn't have the money or the inclination to buy one of the books they were hawking, so today, it's almost as if I was never there.
There you have it. My first trip to MoMA was not a memorable one. But it wasn't a total loss. It was also the day I first saw Bill Viola's The Quintet of Remembrance.
At the time, I hadn't been exposed to a great deal of video art. I was an art student sure, but I had a sort of quixotic affinity for the handmade; plus I was living in central North Carolina in a period that predated YouTube, so there wasn't a great deal of opportunity. I had seen a bunch of stills in books and magazines and a few old black and white reels in college. Early William Wegman, some Richard Serra, Dennis Oppenheim, and a few others, but beyond that, mainly student work. I found a kind of adolescent charm in some of it, but I was never really a fan. I had never been pulled in, never felt as though I was in the presence of something that was worth the time it was asking me to spend looking at it.
Video sort of emerged as a viable artistic medium during a period when artists had really begun to fetishize the concept of the conceptual and place the idea behind a work of art so high above its execution that it's often difficult to discern the difference between the real art of the period and its numerous parodies. And while I have little doubt that it was an exciting time to be an artist, the art that it produced so often falls into the realm of an amateurish spectacle of self-indulgent excess which fails to connect on either an intellectual or emotional level to anyone living outside the cocoon of space and time in which it was made.
Video artists had chosen moving pictures, a genre that presents so many opportunities of which we're all aware, but in their urgency to cast off so many the format's conventions, they were unwilling, uninterested, or, so often, incapable of even beginning to harness its potential. And, if you ask me, a lot of bad art resulted. But the medium was young, and as you'd hope, with experimentation comes experience, and with experience most living things have a habit of coming of age.
The Quintet of Remembrance is one of four videos created between 2000 and 2001 that were inspired by the artist's study of late medieval and early Renaissance Italian and Flemish paintings and their iconography. In each, a group of five people undergo a range of emotions while the camera records every nuance of their physical reaction.
Here, Viola specifically references Hieronymus Bosch's Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns) (ca. 1490-1500, National Gallery, London), Andrea Mantegna's Adoration of the Magi (1495-1505, Getty Museum, Los Angeles), and Dieric Bouts' Mater Dolorosa (Sorrowing Madonna) (1470-75, Art Institute of Chicago). Bosch's painting acts as the visual template for the composition of this work and the strong emotions conveyed by the five people that vacillate between compassion, shock, grief, anger, fear, and rapture. Although they share a close physical space, each person is fully absorbed in his or her own emotional experience. Shot with high-speed 35-mm film, the actors' performance, which lasted approximately sixty seconds, is extended in the finished video to a little over sixteen minutes, accentuating the power and depth of each emotion.
Viola embraced the visual, specifically the aesthetic, attributes of the medium in a way unlike any video artist I'd ever seen. He seemed intent on placing the work, and the medium, into a new or, rather, much older context, engaging in a dialogue with art history while seeming to turn a deaf ear to the solipsism that had plagued the contemporary dialogue for so long.
The installation space, which you can see in the link, was sort of a box of a room, not too small, but dark with two rows of benches facing a screen onto which the glowing image was being projected. The first thing you notice is how very much like a painting it is. Viola looked to the early Renaissance for his composition and inspiration, but he lit his subjects with the dramatic flare of the Baroque, and, if not for their contemporary dress, The Quintet may at first be mistaken for a group populating the work of one of the Caravaggisti. And the piece is quiet, like a painting. There's no audio track accompanying the video, just a very low electronic hum of the projector working.
But the longer you look, the more you realize how unlike a painting it is. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the piece is changing before your eyes. It moves. The figures, who seem frozen at first, are shifting, at a snail's pace, yes, but continuously nonetheless. Captured, the moment has been prolonged, so that each of its subtleties, every minute change of expression or posture can be seen, can be read, and can be felt by the viewer. No, this was not a painting, nor a photograph. It was something else entirely. And it had me mesmerized.
While there were people constantly filing in and out, I felt the uncanny sense of being alone in there beneath a shroud of darkness and anticipation, as though I had become so entangled with the piece with the experience of experiencing it, that everyone in the space had become part of it, as though we were all players, surrounded, but each of us lost in our own encapsulated moment. And something strange happened: I stayed for the duration.
I don't know whether or not it would be right to say that I was moved. I was surprised. Sometimes that's just as good. I left the space in silence, still not sure what I had seen, but feeling as though it had been something special, something that I would not soon forget.
We spent most of the rest of the day at the Met. I remember there was a really nice show chronicling the lives and work Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi, and that one of my friends was especially taken by an exhibition of small works by Paul Klee, of whom he was a much bigger fan than I. And there was, of course, the permanent collection: Van Eyck, Velázquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Poussin, Goya, Chardin, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, and on and on. It's really far too much to see in a day, and it's no wonder that I could barely stand to look at anything for more than a moment when the day was done. Before we made the trek down to MoMA, I'm sure we found our way to the American Wing of the Met where we would have looked for Madame X or The Gulf Stream, or some other such thing that we would have known by heart, but when I think back on that day, on sitting in the dark and the feeling of being enveloped by the glow of The Quintet, what comes to mind is a picture I don't even remember seeing until much later. The story of which, I will get into soon.
Note: The video above is not The Quintet of Remembrance. It is clip from The Quintet of Astonished. A still of the QoR can be seen in the link accompanying the blockquote.