Bill Viola and the Seventy Veils
Unlike things and their reflection in the mirror and unlike the moon and its reflection in the water, when one side is illuminated, the other side is dark. – Eihei Dogen
Last night, at a fundraiser for the San Francisco Zen Center, artist Bill Viola described his childhood preoccupation with perceiving reality from different angles and perspectives. He would stare at reflections of objects in the water, or lie on his side with his head on the ground for a long time, and things would take on a different aspect. Even giving close attention to the reflective fringe on a piece of fabric can open the door to another world.
He sensed that in those moments of perspectival shift, something real was disclosed. Perhaps he was seeing something more true than the ordinary world that we usually experience.
This sense of discovery and insight, in the midst of time-dilated experiences, characterizes a great deal of his video and installation art. There is a sense of mystery as blurry images gradually become clear, remote images move slowly toward the viewer, or the camera angle slowly shifts until we finally realize what it is that we’re seeing. There are continual images of transit and transformation, metamorphosis and epiphany.
Art historian John Walsh, who curated a Viola show at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, recalled hearing the artist reflect on the Sufi doctrine of the seventy veils that lie between human beings and God. As described by the great Sufi master Ibn al-‘Arabi:
The Prophet said, “God has seventy veils of light and darkness; were he to remove them, the glories of His Face would burn away everything perceived by the sight of His creatures.” Look how subtle these veils are, and how hidden, for God says, “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein” (50:15), while those veils exist, preventing us from seeing Him in this mighty nearness…. (1)
In ordinary life, when we’re constantly distracted by the intellect and its strategic concerns, there is a continual bewildered engagement with the various energies and images that direct our attention, but periods of stillness or of deep human experience hold the possibility of real awareness, of standing in relationship to a God who almost seems to break through the threshold.
During the brief Q and A following the lecture, I wanted to know about the possibility of openness that seems to absorb him as an artist – the sense of discovery that his art creates for audiences by preparing the viewer for peripatetic shifts in which everything suddenly resolves.
What is that open space, I asked, and is it possible to peer beyond the veil? Or are there only more veils?
I can only paraphrase his thoughtful and detailed reply, in which he talked about the different kinds of veiling and disclosure that can occur throughout life. Each experience has its own sense of discovery, and carries its own particular meaning. For example, as you age, things gradually come into focus, or things that were once clear can become unclear.
Some doors never open, he observed, and this is not a bad thing. There are doors that turn you away, and that turning away sustains the mystery that people need in order to live. Some doors remained closed because what they conceal would destroy you.
But there are also moments that convey something that is real, something that is known not with the mind but with the the heart and the body, and the totality of one’s being, something beyond words.
I think it is those moments of value that Viola tries to evoke in works like “The Passing,” a video work that juxtaposes unflinching images of the death of his mother with images of birth. The point of the work is immediately obvious, but the effect is profound, for the piece is not explanatory but visionary. It does not evoke a new intellectual understanding, but a reorientation of perspective and value.
Of the artists I’ve come across in my life, Viola has been the most effective at consistently bringing such moments forth for me. When I first came upon a huge retrospective of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago by chance in 1999, the effect of it was life-changing. At the time I was living in Charlottesville, studying Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at the University of Virginia, but when I saw his work, I realized that there was a whole world going on out there, and I wanted to be part of it. I knew I wouldn’t find it if I remained cloistered away in intensive study for ten years. As a consequence of that discovery, I left school and moved to San Francisco.
Viola spoke with generosity, reflecting on the many kindnesses that were necessary for the process of creativity, and equally necessary for life itself. He encouraged everyone to embrace the creative force that not only forms the essence of art, but is the creative power that sustains the whole world.
Think of all of the things that were necessary to bring you forth and to prepare you for life, he counseled, all the teachers and parents who gave you what you need in order to live. Your past has been held by a lattice of inconceivable supports that you could never have hoped to ask for. And trust, as you move forward into the unknown, that your future will be, too.
1) Chittick WC The Sufi Path of Knowledge; Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination. State University of New York Press. 1989. p 364.