Bill Viola at James Cohan

Image above: © Bill Viola, Inverted Birth, 2014  / courtesy of James Cohan Gallery 

James Cohan presents Inverted Birth, the gallery’s seventh solo exhibition by internationally acclaimed video artist Bill Viola, on view from December 10, 2015 through January 30, 2016. Featured are six major works created between 2012 and 2014: Ancestors (2012), Inverted Birth (2014), and four pieces from the Martyrs series, Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr, and Water Martyr (all 2014).

aIMG_1576-EditAshley ComerImages above: © Ashley Comer,  from the opening reception 

Regarded as a seminal figure in the development of video art, Viola has been celebrated throughout his 40-year career for combining state-of-the-art technology with universal humanistic themes – birth, death, and the unfolding of consciousness. These themes continue in Viola’s Inverted Birth, which explores the life cycle as a continuum rather than a linear progression. Viola has remarked, “Birth is not a beginning, death is not an end.

VIOLA_Air Martyr_2014_JCG7661_01_largeImage above: ©Bill Viola, Air Martyr, 2014 / courtesy of James Cohan Gallery 

In the main gallery, Viola’s monumental video and audio installation Inverted Birth is projected onto a fifteen-foot high screen anchored to the floor. The work depicts five stages of awakening through a series of violent transformations. The piece begins with a man standing in darkness, coated in black fluid. Gradually, the fluid begins to flow in reverse and rises upward with increasing velocity. The fluids change from black to red to white, ultimately becoming clear like water. A soft mist covers the man for the final stage of awakening. The essential elements of human life: earth, blood, milk, water and air, and the passage from birth to death, here are inverted when darkness is transformed into light.

VIOLA_Earth Martyr_2014_JCG7660_01_largeImage above: ©Bill Viola, Earth Martyr, 2014 / courtesy of James Cohan Gallery 


In Ancestors, on view in Gallery 1, a mother and son make a journey on foot across the desert in the heat of summer. In the course of traversing this inhospitable landscape, a new consciousness unfolds when they become swallowed by a dust storm and emerge finding solace in one another.

VIOLA_Inverted Birth_2014_still 01_largeImage above: ©Bill Viola, Inverted Birth, 2014 / courtesy of James Cohan Gallery 


In Gallery 3, the four pieces from the Martyrs series Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr, and Water Martyr are installed. The works are derived from Viola’s large-scale installation Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (2014) unveiled last year at St Paul’s Cathedral, London and on long-term loan from Tate. It is the first moving-image artwork on permanent view in a cathedral in Great Britain.

VIOLA_Water Martyr_2014_JCG7663_02_largeImage above: ©Bill Viola, Water Martyr, 2014 / courtesy of James Cohan Gallery 

Each work is shown on a vertical LCD screen, and installed one on each of the four walls, creating an immersive environment in the gallery’s last room.  Four figures are silently and gradually overcome by the four elements of nature. As Viola describes: “Flames rain down, winds begin to lash, water cascades, and earth flies up. As the elements rage, each martyr’s resolve remains unchanged. In their most violent assault, the elements represent the darkest hour of the martyr’s passage through death into the light.”

Exhibition is on view until January 30, 2016 at James Cohan located at 533 West 26 Stree New York NY 10001

KARINE LAVAL the water bearer

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