Bill Viola at Haunch of Venison
The small pamphlet that accompanies Bill Viola's new show at Haunch of Venison describes him as 'one of the world's leading contemporary artists.' But how great is Bill Viola? Is he, indeed, great at all? Is he, as is claimed, one of the world's leading contemporary artists? What is his place? How much do we like him? Do we like him at all?
I don't know the answers to these questions.
Earlier in the week, someone asks if I'm going to this show tonight. Well, I say, you know, it's Bill Viola. He's like the Tom Hanks of the artworld, no? Or the Steven Spielberg. And the person I'm saying this to takes a bit of umbrage and offence at this and starts pulling out a whole list of works by Viola that should be enough to put me in my place. And they sort of do. Because I'm thinking for every E.T. there's a Schindler's List. For every The Terminal there's a Duel. I mean, yes, I saw the Nantes Triptych a few years back when they had it at the Whitechapel and I thought it was the first work which seemed to suggest that video art had come of age: it dealt with the BIG THEMES full on, head on, and wasn't ashamed to wear it's heart on its own three massive video screens. But later I also saw a lot of other Viola stuff which made me think - 'Speed up, man, just speed up'. A crass commentary, certainly, on what Bill is doing, but I think sometimes there's just a tendency to link slowness with meaning. And that's not right, is it?
Aw, heck, what do I know?
So I go along and check out the stuff on show across three darkened floors of Haunch of Venison. The place is filled with rich, posh darlings and art world heavies. As I'm walking around I'm picking up stuff like: 'oh, yah, I saw this in New York. Oh, hi. Yah, I saw this in New York,' or: 'You know I spent the day with them and they bought a LOT of work, and I mean a LOT...' and I spread myself around from piece to piece, coming and going and returning and leaving and picking up certain pieces and sometimes I think: 'Hey, Bill. Speed up, man, speed up.' And then suddenly I end up quite liking some of the stuff on show here. I find myself getting caught up. I stand there thinking, this is very seductive: the colours, the slowness, it's all very pleasing to be a part of. I'm liking this. Then a part of me goes, 'Yeah, but speed up, man, speed up....' there's more to being slow, surely? Hell, I'm not saying he has to become Benny Hill, for goodness sakes, but...
Anyway, while I am thinking all this up pops Simon Tyszko. He's very happy. And I'm very happy for him too, because a project called PHLIGHT, on which he has been working since I think I first met him about three years ago (can that be right?), has just secured Arts Council funding. And so happy is he about this that he's quickly printed out some 'phlyers' (as I think they should surely be called) to pass around to people telling them all about it. It's an exhibition, a book, a happening. You can check it out here. So, he's happy and I take his photo. His sharp blue eyes, like pure drops of sunlit sea scooped up from a glittering mediterranean coastline you can still remember from a holiday you were on at the age of eighteeen, sleeping rough in train stations and on beaches, light up in the camera flash. We are all very happy. And that includes his friend, Anne Pigalle, who is there. She is very glamorous and very french - as you can see here.
There's a small video work in the top gallery, along with some drawings, called Old Oak (Study), slightly away from the other stuff which, as far as I can tell, given the irregular, but repeated viewings I give it, is a film of a tree, with dawn slowly breaking through its branches. In theory it should be the most beautiful work I've ever seen, but somehow I never quite hit the groove. Though I'm sure if I did stuff with video it's exactly what I would do. But I don't, so....
I bump into Calum F Youknowwho who has just come down from Larry Gagosian's gallery and the Francis Bacon/Damien Hirst extravaganza. We have a chat. He talks about bedbugs. This will form his contribution to Kitson Kaleidoscope next week. He also points out and gives me an introduction Mark Westall, who is one part of FAD. FAD have a blog which I added to the blog list on the right of this text a few weeks back. It's interesting. Check it out. They are also doing another issue of FAD the magazine soon, a free issue, to give out to friends. It will be interesting too. Then we have a chat. About the internet, Rupert Murdoch and the problem of being Robbie Willams.
Then I look some more at Viola's work. There's always a discomforting hint of sentimentality, or schmaltz, about his work, which I find difficult. Maybe it's why Americans love this stuff so much, I think.
Anyway, I'm confused about all this so I go to the only man who can help: I say hello to Bill himself. I tell him I have followed his work for a long time. 'That's great,' he says, 'In this country, people do follow the work. That's why I love showing here. You know, I showed this work in New York and I didn't get a review. What can you do? You can't do anything.' He shrugs and smiles.
At this point I want to hug him.
But I don't.
I just take his photo (above).
Later, the person I had the conversation with when I said Bill was like Spielberg sees me and says, 'Hey, what you said about Viola's work before? Actually, I agree.'
I think about this.
Because bizarrely enough, I'm no longer sure I even agree with it myself.