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The Barnes Foundation to Present Exhibition by Pioneering Video Artist Bill Viola

I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola
Curated by John G. Hanhardt

June 30–September 15, 2019
Press preview: Wednesday, June 26, 9:30 am

Philadelphia, PA, March 28, 2019—In its first exhibition devoted to video art, the Barnes Foundation is presenting a survey of works by pioneering American video artist Bill Viola (b. 1951). Organized for the Barnes by distinguished guest curator John G. Hanhardt, I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola is the first large-scale exhibition of Viola’s work to be presented in Philadelphia. This exhibition brings together a selection of the artist’s major pieces dating from 1976 to 2009, including the rarely seen large-scale installations He Weeps for You (1976), Pneuma (1994/2009), and Ascension (2000), as well as smaller screen-based works. On view in the Barnes’s Roberts Gallery from June 30 through September 15, 2019, the exhibition shows how Viola has redefined the moving image with a compelling and distinctive oeuvre that challenges the senses.

I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola is sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal.

During the 1970s, Bill Viola was a vanguard leader experimenting with the new medium of video. He paved the way for subsequent generations of media artists and throughout his career has created genre-defying, mind-expanding work that invites meditations on human consciousness, spirituality, and the cycle of life and death.

The exhibition draws its title from Viola’s 1986 work I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, an ambitious 89-minute, single-channel video that envisions an epic quest for transcendence and self-knowledge. A touchstone for the exhibition, this work—which Viola describes as a “personal investigation of the inner states and connections to animal consciousness we all carry within”—will be presented in the Comcast NBCUniversal Auditorium at the Barnes. Seven additional works, including three full-room installations, will be on view in the Roberts Gallery.

“For our first exhibition dedicated to video art, we are thrilled to present the work of artistic visionary Bill Viola, whose immersive installations explore the nature of human consciousness,” says Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President. “Uniquely suited for a presentation at the Barnes, this exhibition reveals Viola’s myriad global influences, which are echoed in the diverse holdings of the Barnes collection, where European modernist and Italian Renaissance paintings are displayed alongside African and Asian art, and Native American jewelry and textiles.”

“It’s exciting to bring the first large-scale Bill Viola exhibition to Philadelphia,” says guest curator John G. Hanhardt. “The collection at the Barnes presents a wonderful context in which to celebrate Viola’s remarkable achievements and his contribution to world art.”

Exhibition highlights include:

  • Ablutions (2005): A video diptych with a woman and a man on separate screens slowly cleansing their hands in a ritual of purification.
  • Ascension (2000): A signature piece and one of the most dramatic in Viola’s oeuvre, this work shows the transformation of the body as it plunges into water and is transfigured by light. The movement is a compelling expression of rejuvenation in the space between life and death.
  • Catherine’s Room (2001): An exquisitely detailed five-channel video, its form is based on the predella in St. Catherine of Siena Praying by the 15th-century painter Andrea di Bartolo Cini. It is a private view into the room of a solitary woman who performs daily rituals from morning until night, seen simultaneously in a series of five screens arranged in a horizontal row.
  • The Greeting (1995): A celebrated work, which premiered at the Venice Biennale and was inspired by Pontormo’s Mannerist painting Visitation (1528–1529). It is the unfolding of a meeting between three women that depicts in extreme slow motion, every nuance and detail of their emotions and movements.
  • He Weeps for You (1976): Rarely seen and the earliest work on view, this large-scale landmark closed-circuit video installation explores our perception of time, focusing on a single drop of water that contains a reflection of the room and people in it. It repeatedly and slowly forms and then falls, striking an amplified drum. The magnified drop is seen as a large projection in the room.
  • I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986): This single-channel video, with an 89-minute running time, is structured in five parts: Il Corpo Scuro (The Dark Body), The Language of the Birds, The Night of Sense, Stunned by the Drum, and The Living Flame. It envisions a metaphysical journey of rational and intuitive thought, from the natural world to spiritual rituals. Viola’s poetic investigation of subject and object, observing and being observed, and his search for knowledge of the self is encapsulated in an indelible visual metaphor: an image of the artist reflected in the pupil of an owl’s eye.
  • Observance (2002): Displayed on a narrow vertical screen, this work portrays an evocative and emotionally charged scene, where people file forward in shared anguish and grief to observe the object of their sorrow.
  • Pneuma (1994/2009): In this dreamlike installation, room-size projections create an immersive environment that invites contemplation. “Images alternately emerge and submerge into a field of shimmering visual noise, the ground of all images, and hover at the threshold of recognition and ambiguity,” Viola describes.

I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola is organized for the Barnes by distinguished guest curator John G. Hanhardt, with the collaboration of Kira Perov and the Bill Viola Studio.

Published by the Barnes and edited by curator John G. Hanhardt, the exhibition catalogue I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola, offers an unprecedented view of Bill Viola’s work, revealing his creative process while placing his art and thought in a rich cultural and philosophical context. The catalogue focuses, for the first time, on the global texts and thinkers that inspired and shaped Viola’s art across the span of his career, in an exploration of the artist’s thoughts on philosophy, theology, and spirituality. The catalogue includes new material from the Bill Viola Studio’s archives, including drawings, notes, and production photographs from the artist himself. The catalogue also features new scholarship, including essays by Hanhardt; Thomas Carlson, professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the artist’s close collaborator and partner, Kira Perov.

Bill Viola (b. 1951) has exhibited widely both in the US and internationally. His major solo exhibitions include presentations at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1987); the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1997); the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2002); the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (2003); Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2006); Grand Palais, Paris (2014); the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC (2016); Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, Italy (2017); Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain (2017); and the Royal Academy, London (2019). Viola represented the US at the 45th International Art Exhibition, la Biennale di Venezia in 1995. His works are included in major museum collections globally, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Tate Modern, London; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. He lives and works in Long Beach, California, with Kira Perov, executive director of Bill Viola Studio and Viola’s partner and collaborator for over 35 years.

This exhibition is sponsored by Comcast NBCUniversal.

Generous support for this exhibition comes from the Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz Exhibition Fund, the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation, and Aileen and Brian Roberts.

Critical support for all exhibitions comes from contributors to the Barnes Foundation Exhibition Fund.

The exhibition catalogue is made possible with generous support provided by the Lois and Julian Brodsky Publications Fund.

Bill Viola: The Veiling
June 26—October 6, 2019
The Fabric Workshop and Museum, Philadelphia
The Veiling is one of five video and sound installations that Bill Viola produced to occupy the five rooms of the US Pavilion during the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995. Through a collaboration with the Fabric Workshop and Museum, Viola created a system of nine sheer scrims that catch the light from two video projections. Images of a man and a woman can be seen slowly walking toward each other, passing through the scrims, and merging at the center before moving apart again. This ghostly action, repeating over and over, becomes hypnotic. Like much of Viola’s work, The Veiling has a dreamlike quality and suggests the multiplicity of experience that exists both in our own thoughts and our understanding of our interaction with another human being.

Bill Viola: Ocean Without a Shore
June 28, 2019—December 31, 2019
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), Philadelphia
Ocean Without a Shore (2007), acquired by PAFA in 2010, is a major video installation and a profound experiential work by Bill Viola that combines a reverence for the traditions of figuration and realism in Western art with cutting-edge technology. Entering Ocean Without a Shore, the viewer stands in a darkened room before three large monitors. In turns that last an average of three to four minutes on each of the three screens, a total of 24 people emerge individually from behind an invisible wall of rushing water, and eventually return the way they came. Viola describes Ocean Without a Shore as “a series of encounters at the intersection between life and death.” Originally commissioned for the 2007 Venice Biennale, the work was first shown in the 15th-century Church of the Oratorio San Gallo, a short distance from the Piazza San Marco. Inspired by the writings of Senegalese poet Birago Diop, it takes its title from Andalusian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, who wrote, “The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.”

The Barnes Foundation is a nonprofit cultural and educational institution that shares its unparalleled art collection with the public, organizes special exhibitions, and presents programming that fosters new ways of thinking about human creativity. The Barnes collection is displayed in ensembles that integrate art and objects from across cultures and time periods, overturning traditional hierarchies and revealing universal elements of human expression. Home to one of the world’s finest collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modernist paintings—including the largest groups of paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne in existence—the Barnes brings together renowned masterworks by such artists as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, and Vincent van Gogh, alongside ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and non-Western art as well as metalwork, furniture, and decorative art.

The Barnes Foundation was established by Dr. Albert C. Barnes in 1922 to “promote the advancement of education and the appreciation of the fine arts and horticulture.” Since moving to the heart of Philadelphia in 2012, the Barnes has expanded its commitment to teaching visual literacy in groundbreaking ways, investing in original scholarship relating to its collection and enhancing accessibility throughout every facet of its program.

The Barnes is open Wednesday–Monday, and tickets can be purchased on-site, online, or by calling 215.278.7200. Ticket prices and current hours are listed on our website.

Deirdre Maher, Director of Communications
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