Video artist Bill Viola's relation to Lee U-fan unraveled

The Korea Times By Kwon Mee-yoo

BUSAN ― Video art pioneer Bill Viola is selected to be the second artist in "Lee Ufan and His Friends," a new exhibition series at the Busan Museum of Art launched in 2019, and presents 16 video installations that share similar themes of spirituality and existential introspection with Lee.

The museum interprets the shared theme between the two as the "relatum" that enables viewers to encounter an alternative, transcendental world.

"Bill Viola and Lee U-fan convey the Oriental spirit and sensibility intrinsic to the philosophy behind their work. Both artists transcend the contradictions of modernity by combining the methodological thinking of Western modernism with Eastern philosophy," curator Hwang Seo-mi said.

The exhibition consists of two parts. Displayed at the venue, Space Lee Ufan, are Viola's early works experimenting with the characteristics of the medium, while his later works exploring perception and cognition through slow-motion techniques are on view at the main building.

Viola got his start in video art in the 1970s when assisting Korean-born video art pioneer Paik Nam-june as a video technician. Often dubbed as a "Rembrandt of the video age" or a "hi-tech Caravaggio," Viola pursues ontological inquiries in video art.

The three early works on view at Space Lee Ufan are "Migration" (1976), "The Reflecting Pool" (1977-79) and "Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat)" (1979).

"Migration features Viola himself and daily objects on a table as the subject and experiments in various techniques such as zoom-in and -out. The Reflecting Pool is the one that gained distinction for Viola," the curator said.

Viola himself described "The Reflecting Pool" as "the piece concerns the emergence of the individual into the natural world ― a kind of baptism."

In early works, Viola examined the attributes of video art, utilizing the rational media to portray emotional themes.

From the 2000s, Viola's works became more in depth and the artist hired actors and directed scenes to portray his intention of existential introspection.

"The Greeting" (1995), which was presented in the 1995 Venice Biennale, shows the artist's interest in Renaissance painting. Inspired by Pontormo's "Visitation," Viola's video features two women engaged in a conversation and a third woman who joins them. The 45-second original event is extended to 10 minutes, making the viewers concentrate on their gestures and delicate changes in their facial expressions.

"The Quintet of the Astonished" (2000) also maximizes the impact of Viola's signature slow motion. With five people expressing their astonishment, the slow motion is stretched to the extreme and offers chances to examine and contemplate subtle details.

"Five Angels for the Millennium" (2001) is one of the largest installations by Viola, portraying a man as a messenger angel. The repeating sequence of the man plunging into a pool reflects Viola's childhood near-death experience of almost drowning. "Three Women" (2008) also symbolizes water as the threshold between life and death.

The "Martyrs" series, permanently installed at the St Paul's Cathedral in London, consists of four martyrs of earth, air, fire and water. Though evoking religious issues, Viola tried to represent the ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance and sacrifice in modern life.

"Going Forth by Day" (2002) is a five-channel video installation that features different narratives of "Fire Birth," "The Path," "The Deluge," "The Voyage" and "First Light."

"Viola transforms the functional aspects of video into emotional values and incorporates an abstract and spiritual world into his work. In step with the developments of technology, he has always employed new media and created new techniques for his investigations," the curator said.

The exhibit runs through April 4, 2021.

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"The Quintet of the Astonished" (2000) by Bill Viola / Courtesy of Busan Museum of Art

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