Break on through...

...to the other side, with the DMA's newest masterpiecea video, no less.

The Dallas Museum of Art couldn't have chosen a better savior--and it's not a new director but an artist--than Bill Viola. It's not news that the museum has been trapped in an identity crisis for years now. Antiquity or modernity? Conservatism or gambles? Big-money exhibitions or small, pioneering ones? The museum's answer to these questions seems to be "Let's do it all!" but of course no entity, not even the city's only big museum, can pull that off without a watered-down effect. Viola's piece represents sharp focus and surging hope all at once.

The Viola installation--a giant video-sound piece and the newest addition to the museum's permanent collection--takes up a room of its own, which may as well be a chapel, a place for visitors and DMA employees to go and pray for the museum's future and their own souls. Titled "The Crossing," its power is twofold: It's a torrential reminder of how great art can yank you from complacency, and it's an indicator of how awesome the DMA could be if it took more risks like this one.

Go see it by yourself, in the middle of the day. Skip lunch if you have to; the scale and spirit of the piece make it work best as an alone-in-the-dark, personal movie experience. Viola, a California-based video artist and critic's favorite for the past decade or so, has created perhaps his most thoughtful masterpiece with "The Crossing." Every detail of the installation clicks into place: the dimensions of the room and the double-sided screen, the potent surround sound, the super-slow motion imagery--the experience is as technologically current as it is thematically timeless.

At its foundation, "The Crossing" is really a painting, with an age-old take on absolution, release, and redemption--it even has the dimensions of a monumental Da Vinci or Titian you'd find at the Prado. Only this one comes straight at you and roars in your ears and even gets switched off to blank silence at night when the museum closes shop. It's the flicker and buzz of digital information brought to its unexpected and crowning achievement, the age of technology far exceeding mankind's utilitarian hope for it. It makes you think, feel, shudder, and rethink, like the best art, only it's all done with the same objects we toss around our own living rooms: VCR, video camera, stereo, and speakers. (Or nearly the same. The key difference, say, between my rickety camcorder and Viola's camera, obviously, being quality and price).

Video, as an art form, has come a way since Paul McCarthy's 1972 short "Painting Face Down, White Line," but not that far. Same tools today, really, and more often than not they're used to bring us such soul-sucking wonders as Cops: Too Hot for TV! or pretentious college art theses showing goateed students munching on dog turds while spouting Voltaire. That Viola can inject the same medium with such hypnotic, spiritual power is better than plain ol' art. It's downright transcendental.

In Viola's lecture on opening night, he made a point about the materials that go into a VCR--plastic, metal--at their root coming from nature. Petroleum. Steel. Electricity. We're using natural materials to capture time itself, just as we've been doing since Daguerre sliced a static chunk out of actual time (not a painter's impression of it) in the first photograph. Viola takes the same concept, and roughly the same tool (the camera) and turns that point back on itself. His imagery is not about a specific time, but about time itself and our multi-layered passage through it.

When you first walk into the DMA's contemporary art section, you may hear ominous roaring from the back room; if you want to catch the piece from its beginning, wait for the noise to die down before forging back there. (Wouldn't hurt to gaze at the Motherwells for a few moments.) The installation room is nearly pitch-black at first--dip in and feel your way along the wall, and focus on the 14-foot-tall screen in front of you. Sure, it's creepy; you can't see your own two feet, yet your vision is drawn to the man in the movie, who's walking with the leaded movements of dream motion, toward you, from about 40 yards distance. The soundtrack of his languorous passage is black-hole-like, the echoing vacuum of the image's flat, alien terrain. Soon enough, as the man approaches and the screen brightens, you gain a sense of the screening room's edges--as well as the way the screen wall bisects the space--and the idea that the image is being projected on the other side of this wall as well. You can stand on either side.

The man in the video is Viola, and his advance is so measured, so determined that you know the video won't culminate with him simply walking out of the picture. He gets closer to the foreground, he's getting closer to his goal, and the tension mounts. It's a beautiful tension, though, heavy with mystery, anticipation of doom or catharsis. He stops, more than 10 feet tall now and filling the screen--he's looking at you and waiting, and then, depending on which side of the screen you're standing, a type of annihilation begins. One side, fire. The other, water.

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