That is the case in one of the most raw videos here, Observance, from 2002. In color and extreme close-up, a crowd of people files past the camera, their expressions filled with grief. We don’t know what they are looking at (except us), but it seems likely it is meant to be a wake or funeral.
Two pieces with the most dramatic action might also be two of the most familiar to anyone who knows Viola’s work.
One is The Raft from 2004. A cast of 19 represents people from all walks of life — young and old, of different races and color — who are standing and waiting for something, minding their own business in their personal worlds. Suddenly a giant wave, or maybe a blast from a powerful water hose, hits them and their isolation ends as they fall on top of each other. Filmed as usual in extreme slow motion, both the terrifying event and the facial expressions leave a visceral impression. As the water subsides, they continue to touch one another, still confused but somehow changed. An intense soundtrack of rushing water accompanies it.
The 2000 video Ascension is equally powerful but not violent — it is meditative and gorgeous and can be viewed over and over. In this case, the sole character does not come to us, but plunges or falls into an ocean and slowly sinks, likely drowns, while the bubble trails above and around him form beautiful patterns. The figure eventually rises, with an obvious reference not to Eastern spiritualism but to the core of Christianity. It is once again a story of rebirth.
Other videos are almost like lightboxes, with movement and change of color forming a subtle montage. Like Catherine’s Room from 2001, which takes place over five small LCD flat screens during a day. A woman sits doing a household task in a sparsely furnished room. The light is what signals the time of day (or of the season, or of a lifetime). Maybe the most beautiful feature in each is the small window in the upper right corner of the room, which frames a tree branch with a sky that changes from bright blue to a midday white to a lush caramel color.
During much of Viola’s artistic journey, he has been accompanied by his wife and collaborator Kira Perov. This is the case with the latest series, Mirage, of which Ancestors is a part. A couple emerges from a blurred, dusty landscape, coming at us from a mirage — illusion and reality remaining a little fuzzy.
There are many other videos, on small and large screens, some with their own soundtracks and rooms, others sharing their darkened space. The scope and body of work being shown at MOCA is impressive, giving Miami a good opportunity to understand why Viola has helped make video art an integral part of contemporary art, in the best way.