From Shirin Neshat’s “Fervor” to William Kentridge’s “Felix in Exile,” Kansas City has been exposed to a lot of great video art over the past decade or so.
But Bill Viola’s “The Raft,” now on view at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, marks the first local showing of the artist widely regarded as video’s grand master.
Viola’s 40-year career encompasses international showings and awards. In 1989 he was named a MacArthur Foundation fellow; in 1995 he had a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in 1997 he represented the U.S. at the 46th Venice Biennale.
In 2004 he made headlines for his collaboration with theater director Peter Sellars and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on a new production of the Richard Wagner opera “Tristan und Isolde.”
Viola is well-known for slow-motion videos that take inspiration from art historical masterworks, including his critically acclaimed “The Greeting,” which re-envisions Italian mannerist Jacopo Pontormo’s painting “The Visitation.”
“The Raft,” in which an unexpected deluge engulfs a group of urban dwellers, also reverberates with references to past art, notably French artist Theodore Gericault’s dramatic “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19), a monumental painting commemorating a 19th-century shipwreck.
“The Raft’s” protagonists also bear an uncanny resemblance to the commuters portrayed in George Segal’s bronze sculpture “Rush Hour,” displayed outside the Bloch Building.
Viola calls “The Raft” a metaphor for today’s world, but it also provides something of an antidote, countering the noisy spectacle of Hollywood disaster films with a focus on human psychology and a presentation largely stripped of particulars.
Although the clothing reveals that these people are contemporary, the setting includes no evidence of place. The sparse backdrop and slowed action endow the work with a deliberately stagey air. The piece feels like a theatrical vignette or a painting come to life.
Unfortunately, these contrivances undermine the work’s emotional impact.
“The Raft” opens with view of people who appear to be daily commuters lining up to board a train, judging from the rumble and click of the sound track.
With the exception of one woman, who wends through the line to greet another woman she appears to know, all are inward turned, focused on their own thoughts and pursuits, with little acknowledgement of those surrounding them.
Waiting quietly, they are hit all of a sudden by a torrent of water that knocks several of them over and causes others to collide into their neighbors.
Like the blast of spray from the fire hoses unleashed on civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., almost a half a century ago, the water enters the frame laterally. The similarity between the struggling silhouetted figures captured in photographs of the demonstrators and the flailing shadowy forms in Viola’s 10 1/2 minute video provokes a gut-wrenching sense of deju vu.
Heightening the atmosphere of terror is the soundtrack’s unrelenting roar of water.
“The Raft” resonates with recent watery disasters like the wreck of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy. Both scenarios include a mix of responses from those involved. Offsetting reports of the cruise liner’s captain abandoning ship and wealthy passengers bribing their way onto the first life boats are tales of valor, like the British dancer who used his body as a human bridge to help other passengers to safety.
In the video, the survival instinct trumps compassion at the height of the onslaught, but as the water subsides, some members of the group rally to one another’s aid.
Viola says the work is “for cultivating knowledge of how to be in the world.”
“ ‘The Raft’ captures the complexity of human feeling,” says Leesa Fanning, the Nelson’s associate curator of modern and contemporary art.
Not entirely. While Viola convincingly conveys anomie and fear, the video’s moments of care and tenderness are less believable, and the whole thing has a vaguely preachy feel.
“The Raft” touches the mind, but not the heart.