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Bill Viola at the New Dowse

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This disturbing confusion between life and death is accentuated by the refracted dappled light which makes a healthy-looking body look bleached of blood and anaemic when submerged.

Wellington

 

Bill Viola
The Messenger

20 February - 4 July 2010

Floating deep within the choppy blue water we can see what looks like the deathly white corpse of a drowned man. Its sunken form is fragmented by the agitated surface of the wind-raked water as it divides up, its separated parts tenuously linked by wobbly ropes of pale fluid flesh. Slowly it seems to elongate and rise up, but then it stabilises, and hesitates - only to gradually descend once more.

Then the stationary jelly-like form has a change of mind: it ascends to the surface, only to reveal a naked man very much alive. We hear him gasping for breath - but not at all stressed - as he bobs up and down in the rippling azure sea, filling his lungs with oxygen. Then with a thin line of bubbles pouring out of one nostril, he gradually descends once more - to hover as a small amoeboid blob about fifteen feet down. The process continues four times before it starts repeating the original cycle once more.

We see this film on a single screen in a very dark room with two benches. The screen is tall and the seats not close - while the image itself is ambiguous, mostly appearing to be belly up, but other times face down and headless. This disturbing confusion between life and death is accentuated by the refracted dappled light which makes a healthy-looking body look bleached of blood and anaemic when submerged.

The lack of panic on the filmed man’s face references a near drowning experience Viola once had as a boy, where he was close to death but obliviously peaceful and serene. A quick-witted uncle fished him out, saving his life.

The Messenger thus oscillates in its mood, for more than calm, the actor has a hint of a twinkle in his eye, yet the tone of his pale submerged body is stridently alarming. There is something oddly subversive about this hypnotically beguiling 1996 work that denies the permanence of death: a mocking mysticism that seems to espouse the concept of reincarnation but which in its very realistic symbolism, I personally find very creepy indeed.

 

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