Bill Viola’s video Incrementation makes me uncomfortable, and yet I stick with it for a good long while. Viola himself is on the screen, breathing; nothing happens but that. His head fills the box vertically, cropped at the top where his hairline might be, or once was, and at the bottom, trimming his Van Dyke beard. It looks suffocating in there. And it’s unnerving the way the monitor is tethered, via cables, to a speaker on the floor and an LED counter on the wall above, the numerals a pulse-raising red.
Evidence of breathing is usually a reassuring thing. It’s what you’re listening and looking for as you lean over your child, your husband, your elderly parent in bed, the air preternaturally still. But Viola’s breathing is over-evident. It’s amplified, so it sounds almost labored. I can detect little rasps and gasps and an overall raggedness, just enough to reverberate inside my chest.
At first glance I assume the counter is ticking off the seconds, given the resemblance to a digital clock. But of course breaths are what’s being ticked off, each inhale/exhale a unit of time. A kind of breath-keeping clock. This clock has an upper limit of 900,000,000 breaths, I will find out later, equivalent to about eighty-five years of living.
Viola, who has spent a lifetime exploring birth, aging, spirituality, and death, has helped define and advance the field of video art since the early 1970s. But this is the first time I’ve managed to see a solo show of his work—this one titled Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait, at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, where I live. The exhibit’s curator argues for a “new interpretation” of Viola’s art as (unsurprisingly) portraiture, which would make Incrementation a self-portrait. It’s true the work looks ego-centric on approach—an artist boldly presenting himself to the world. But to Viola, as the artist himself writes in the exhibition catalogue, the person in the video is simply “a man.”
Deep into middle age, I sense that the membrane between myself and the rest of the world is getting thinner, along with my hair, my skin, my bones. I’ve become less guarded, more physically and emotionally suggestible. As I stand here watching and listening to Viola breathe, it’s as if I, too, am tethered to that clinical-looking apparatus. I feel a transfer or a sharing of vulnerability, and I do nothing to keep the feeling at bay.
Two memories arise, seemingly drawn straight from my chest. I am five or six, anxiously asking my mother at bedtime: What if I forget to breathe while I’m asleep? And eleven or twelve, suffering a brief phase in which I’m hyper-aware of the in and out of every breath I take, as if what had been automatic until then was now my conscious responsibility. Indeed, Incrementation reactivates this phase when I find it interfering with my own rhythm. I feel compelled to keep time with Viola lest I be uncomfortably out of sync.
The exhibit is sparsely attended on this weekday morning, not long after the doors were opened, and no one comes to hurry me along. The counter keeps flipping its digits. How to square this luxury of time with the time that’s dwindling before me?
Incrementation has a companion piece of sorts, in another room all by itself. In Nine Attempts to Achieve Immortality (18:13 minutes, also 1996), an image of a man—Viola again, head closely cropped as before—is projected onto a screen suspended from the ceiling, the wall behind the screen painted black. This time Viola repeatedly holds his breath for as long as he can. Again, my own rhythm is disrupted, for breathing normally is difficult when the person facing you makes a thing of not breathing at all. Absurdly, as if I’ve been issued a schoolyard challenge, I have to suppress the urge to see how long I, too, can hold my breath.
Upon releasing his breath in several throaty bursts, Viola desperately sucks in air as if he’s just come up from the watery deep and is about to go back under. Then he tries again. Would a superhuman ability to hold one’s breath be a way to suspend time—is that the idea? A way to keep Incrementation’s breath-counting clock from reaching its limit, or at least greatly slow the reckoning? Certainly time seems excruciatingly slow as I stand here, waiting for Viola’s breath to give out again.
After watching Viola make three attempts at immortality, I quit the room and continue through the exhibit, more populated now, like the videos themselves, which feature a variety of people, in pairs and in larger groups, as well as alone. Many of these works are more aesthetically pleasing than the two I’ve just come from—lyrical treatments of mortality and the workings of time, often incorporating the sights and sounds of water. Some are spiritual or mystical in a way that I, not being similarly inclined—not up to this point in my life, anyway—have a hard time getting into. Others are wrenching—flat-out portraits of grief. It occurs to me that Viola’s work, more than that of any other artist I can think of, depends for its reception on the life stage of the person viewing it. And so even in these darkened rooms—too dim to read the slim catalogue in my hands—I find myself sensitive to the ages and bearings of those around me, people I would normally try to tune out as I became absorbed in whatever I was looking at. Here, rather than distracting me, they enhance my experience of Viola’s art. They are “moving portraits” too.
As I exit the exhibit I encounter Incrementation again, largely blocked from my view by two women who appear to be in their late twenties. I come abreast of them just as one turns, wide-eyed and smiling, to the other, who responds in kind. They turn back to the video, moving in closer, and for a moment I see it through their eyes, or what I thought I’d just seen in their eyes—the comic absurdity of a man in a box doing nothing but staring straight ahead and breathing. I absorb these things in two or three seconds, or less time than it takes to breathe in and out.
Nancy Geyer is an essayist and freelance editor living in Washington, DC. She is also the art editor at Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built + Natural Environments. Her writing has appeared in Georgia Review, Iowa Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review, among other journals, as well as in the anthologies Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses (Pushcart Press, 2015), Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (W.W. Norton, 2015), and The Poets Guide to the Birds (Anhinga Press, 2008).
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative nonfiction for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.