Break on through...

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.

How much to give away here? Granted, half the point of an art column is to describe artworks (the other half, presumably, to analyze and critique them), but with film criticism, the smart critic stops short of revealing the climactic end. "The Crossing," at 12 or so minutes' running time, dense and fluid as mercury, manages to play out with beginning-middle-end intrigue, even though it's all one take and one evolving image. The whole, though, is so centered on the final four minutes that in not describing them, the point of the piece, along with the point of writing about it, could evaporate.

Here goes. Fire side: tiny, licking flames appear at his feet, slowly climbing his body, searing his clothes, growing in strength and brightness, expanding across the foreground, enfolding him in their mounting heat, finally reaching a voracious, consuming wall of destruction. Viola is burning alive, in all the explicit detail of slow motion. He stands still for it, drowning in it, eyes closed, accepting the loss of his physical body. The fire is deafening, the soundtrack bellowing low and slow along with the image, the red-orange blaze casting a glow through its half of the screening room. The fire slowly begins to contract, and Viola is gone. Big, lapping flames shrink back toward the ground, finally into tiny flicker, and the screen goes black.

The cycle begins again.
Water side: plink...plink...plink... droplets fall onto Viola's head. Drops turn into rivulets, then rivulets to a small, steady stream, then a broad gush, and Viola closes his eyes and half raises his arms. The gush evolves into a torrent, then a terrifying waterfall, so relentless and heavy that it covers the entire foreground, Viola's outline barely visible even as it throws the water in every direction; it's amazing that he can stand under such weight. Again, the noise surges violently through your ears, and the eerie blue-white light of the waterfall invades the corners of the dark screening room. Viola's outline is washed away--the waterfall slows and lightens, and the rush shrinks to a stream, shrinks to a plink...plink...plink... .(Rinse. Repeat.)

The piece's title, "The Crossing," like its imagery, can mean just about whatever you need it to mean: the thoughtful traversing of the life cycle, the need to re-process and then purge oneself with each life phase, the passing from the earthly to the spiritual realm. Mankind's relationship with fire and water--equally powerful yet opposite forces--is, universally, as much about destruction as it is about massive clean-ups, and the vicarious catharsis of seeing a man burned to ash or washed to molecules transcends any particular religion or spiritual iconography. Most of us have stood too close to a bonfire, or felt the undertow of the ocean; we can well imagine ourselves as the man in the image. At some level, we're all waiting for our turn to cross over--into wisdom, purity, death.

Then, possibly (rinse, repeat) rebirth.

Bill Viola's "The Crossing" at the Dallas Museum of Art. 1717 North Harwood, Dallas. (214) 922-1200. Admission is free.


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