Museums: Making It New

One of the most powerful and haunting experiences of the retrospective exhibition of work of the artist Bill Viola at New York’s Whitney Museum last year was a double-sided video projection showing a walking man; small and distant at first, the figure advanced slowly and deliberately, until, larger than life, it filled the whole screen on both sides. As the figure grew, flames began to lick at the bottom of the screen on one side, and water appeared to rain down from the top of the screen on the other. While the man’s relentless advance continued, the hot orange flames leapt higher and higher and the cool rain became a torrential downpour. The final images were of a full screen of brilliantly flaming fire, and on the reverse, a drowning avalanche of water. Both figures had been totally consumed.

Once seen, this is impossible to dismiss. It can be read as obvious symbolism—man destroyed and regenerated by his passage through the elements of fire and water. Called “The Crossing,” the work repeats the cycle over and over. It can be taken as a morality play or a stunning piece of visual theater, a deeply disturbing use of the arts of film and sound. An unforgettable image, it transmits something intangible and profound.

That makes it incontrovertibly a work of art. The concept and the techniques push the edges of art, pursuing meanings and ways to deliver them that force the viewer to radically revise what he believes art to be. Does this extraordinary imagery make you confront mortality on the artist’s disturbingly graphic terms? So do the depictions of innumerable martyred saints by Renaissance and Baroque masters; even for today’s secular audience the religious imagery has an inescapable impact. Images from mythology such as Titian’s powerful The Flaying of Marsyus remain visually and emotionally forceful.

Viola filled the Whitney’s galleries with remarkable images. The installation, created by the artist in collaboration with the theater director Peter Sellars, not only drastically altered normal perceptions and sensory responses, it also challenged the museum’s plan, spaces, and traditional purposes. When the lights and projectors and recordings go off, the walls are blank; there is no longer anything there, no art at all. Where sound and image and motion had overwhelmed the viewer there is only a void—empty and dark. The relationship between the building and its contents—the ongoing, difficult, and uneasy connections between art and architecture—like the art itself, no longer visibly exists. Once Viola’s transitory images are gone, the space will be completely transformed.

It is in the art museum that the relationship between art and architecture is particularly sensitive and symbiotic—an interdependence further complicated by the fact that two major arts are involved and are often in conflict. The artist Donald Judd observed that art engages in a special dialogue with the space it inhabits. The thesis of Victoria Newhouse’s book, Towards a New Museum, an unusually …

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