Video black (2)

July 30, 2008

(Three related posts this week, M-W-F)

In 1982, film essayist Chris Marker finished a gorgeous film with ample sections from his travels in Japan. A year earlier, video artist Bill Viola finished his first major video work, also in and of, but not about, Japan. Marker emphasized the black, Viola the light:

Video treats light like water– it becomes a fluid on the video tube. Water supports the fish like light supports man. Land is the death of the fish. Darkness is the death of man.

Which is just about all you need to know to appreciate Hatsu Yume (First Dream). For almost an hour, its quiet, slow shots lead from the seashore in the rural north of Japan, through valleys flooded with diffuse sunlight, across the water on a fishing boat, into neon-drenched streets.

A rice field from Hatsu-YumeA child and a rock from Hatsu-YumeA man on a fishing boat from Hatsu-YumeA squid from Hatsu-YumeTokyo nightlife from Hatsu-YumeA taxi from Hatsu-YumeA man & light from Hatsu-Yume

One thing to add, though, is that it’s a journey to death, more or less, ghosts traveling to the ends of the known world.

I heard Viola say as much when I saw him speak in Tokyo in 2006. It was the opening of his show at the Mori Art Museum in preening Roppongi Hills, which I stumbled into by sheer luck. He hadn’t been back in Japan, I believe he said, since he worked there in 1980-81. That time ended with his gig as Artist-in-Residence at Sony’s Atsugi research lab, during which he filmed Hatsu-Yume on the new cameras the engineers has just built.

He recalled the engineers looking on in horror when he showed them his footage, full of light trails dripping off every lamp and lantern. He’d been enamored of this quirk in the equipment; they saw it as revealing a defect. But the old cameras have aged well: his lecture included a premiere of the just-remastered HD version of the film. The extra headroom and resolution brought out details on the source tapes previously obscured by less precise equipment. Most of all, the colors, and the light trails, looked gorgeous: deep reds, vibrant greens, bright yellows.

During the Q&A, I asked whether he missed these old cameras and their quirks. Not so much, he said, though he did mention some young artists getting worked up over the purely analog images, asking what digital filters he’d used. He also said that people no longer trusted digital’s sleek perfection, and so were moving back to the handmade. That’s something coming from an art & technology pioneer.


Other than the videos, and especially the installations, the best introduction to his work is his essay collection, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House. In person, he’s affable, a little geeky; in print, he’s lucid, formidable, even magisterial. While his installations must be seen in person– works like “The Crossing” and “The Stopping Mind” offer grand spectacle– a few videos can be had on DVD. Unfortunately, my screen grabs are from the nasty AVI making the Net-rounds. Whenever I get the Microcinema-distributed DVD, I’ll tidy up.

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