The Video Vibes Of Venice

On a balmy june night in venice, hundreds of fashionably stubbled men and spandexed women crowded around video artist Bill Viola. San Pellegrino spritzers in hand, they shouted congratulations for his show at the current Biennale (open through Oct. 15). This kind of reception used to be reserved for blue-chip painters or sculptors whose flashy work boasted the kind of visual and emotional impact that kept obscure, cheesy video art confined to the cultural fringe.

But the 44-year-old Viola--the U.S. representative at the current Biennale and a MacArthur "genius" fellow--has changed all that. His David Lean-like sense of cinematic grandeur (and a technical proficiency a CNN engineer would envy) have allowed him to free video art from intellectual pretense and small-screen constriction. You step into one of his room-size projections and the subtle poetry of his sequences of images and soundtracks washes over you.

Back in the '60s and '70s, when conceptual art was in its heyday and artists began lugging around cumbersome Portapak cameras, any videotape--no matter how cold or boring--was very avant-garde. No hip gallery could be without a flickering image of a sullen artist performing mundane tasks (such as Martha Rosler, who displayed cooking utensils alphabetically in "Semiotics of the Kitchen"). Some of this vintage stuff had a deadpan wit, which was nice because it certainly wasn't much fun to look at. In the early '80s, video joined the boom in "installation" art. Every chic roomful of sculptural detritus seemed to include a couple of big, black TV monitors glowing mysteriously. But the video part was window dressing at best. Then along came Viola--and a few other artists, like Darn Birnbaum, Gary Hill and Mary Lucier--to turn video into practically a whole new art form.

At the Venice Biennale, Viola created five darkened rooms, each a separate work. "Interval" alternates between an image on one wall of the nude artist, sponging himself in a tiled room, and on the opposite wall, a jarring, roaring montage of fire and flood. A computer switches between the two faster and faster until "Interval" becomes a terrifying strobe. "The Greeting" is an ode to a 16th-century Pontormo painting, in which two brightly clad women meet, embrace and draw apart. Viola slo-mos 45 seconds of real time into 10 minutes of video, with a whispery audio that mixes a freeway's rush, a din of voices, and the wind. The piece elevates a merely pretty event into something truly beautiful.

Viola also has a haunting piece, "Slowly Turning Narrative," in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (open through Sept. 12). Projectors at opposite ends of a room throw images of kids, a carnival and the artist's face (he looks like a cuddly Lenin) onto a big rotating screen. The perspective shifts, the pictures stretch,vanish and reappear. Viola's voice recites, mantralike, simple sentences, each starting, "The one who . . . " The effect is not a bad summation of life itself.

Firewalks in Fiji: "I was lucky, growing up in the first TV generation in the '50s," Viola says over the phone from his studio in Long Beach, Calif. He's explaining his initial attraction to video. And because he was a student of electronic music at Syracuse University, he says, "I've never distinguished between music and sound and the visuals of art." In the 1970s Viola traveled to the Solomon Islands and Indonesia to record traditional music. Since then he's gone off to the Sahara to film mirages, to Tibet to observe religious rituals and to Fiji to look at firewalks. He met his wife, Kira Perov, a photographer, in Australia; they have two young sons. In 1989 the MacArthur grant rescued him from a hand-to-mouth existence. Now his life has changed and he's able to take a break after the Biennale. "It's rare for me to have studio time without facing a deadline," he says.

As the MoMA show demonstrates, Viola is no longer a genre unto himself. Stan Douglas recreated three news broadcasts and runs them simultaneously to make a wonderfully satiric babble. Teiji Furuhashi filmed nudes who seem to walk weightlessly on pitch-black walls. And Gary Hill places picture tubes--each displaying a moving body part--on a shelf, as if they were sculptures. "Video is so varied that it's not part of a single movement," Viola says. "The focus is on the art, not on machines." He and his peers have turned video into the art world's most promising medium.