Inverted Birth, 2014
Video and sound installation
High-definition color video projected on a vertical screen mounted on the floor in a dark room; stereo sound with subwoofer
Size of the image projected: 5 x 2.82 m
8 min., 22 sec.
Performer: Norman Scott
Bill Viola (New York, 1951) is regarded as one of the most important artists in the development of video art throughout his more than 40-year career. During this time, he has combined and explored avant-garde technology through universal themes like birth, death, and the different stages in life. In one of his most recent pieces, Inverted Birth (2014), Viola explores the life cycle as an enveloping whole instead of the hegemonic view of life as a linear progression. The artist considers human beings’ existence on earth as a cycle where the beginning and end may be the same.
Projected onto a screen more than seven meters high anchored to the floor, Inverted Birth depicts five stages of human awakening through a series of violent transformations. A man stands in the darkness drenched in a black fluid; the sound of drips on the ground punctuates the hollow sound of an empty space. Gradually, the fluid begins to rise, and as it does so the upward flow becomes a roaring deluge. The dark desperation of the black turns to fear as the fluid becomes red-tinged, but the man remains strong. With the flow of white fluid comes relief and nurturing, followed by the purification of cleansing water. Finally, a soft mist brings acceptance, awakening, and birth.
The fluids that Viola plays with in Inverted Birth symbolize the essence of human life: earth, blood, milk, water, and air. Viola draws a parallel between his work and the birth of the world by recreating a journey that begins in darkness and travels through different stages, ending in light. The artist yet again explores the relationship between life and death, a theme that he has addressed in many different ways in his works since the start of his career.
The main figure in this video artwork is a man dressed only in pants who appears alone on the screen, projected four times larger than life size. During the course of the entire work, this man bears the torrent of fluids with minimum movement; he only lifts his head and hands slowly for just a few moments. When he is fully covered with the fluid, the man lowers his head and looks directly at the viewer. The action is slow, as in all of Viola’s works, and the man’s glance is inscrutable.
To make this work of art, Viola positioned the camera strategically so the viewer can only see the actor and his reactions, not his working team pouring the fluids onto the man from the light bridge. The film was shot at normal speed in a single take without moving the camera. However, the projection of the work of video art is reproduced in slow motion and backwards. This allows the viewer to perceive the inversion of gravity in the fluid, which flows upward instead of falling, and to observe every detail in the actor’s reaction.
Begin by watching the Bill Viola work Inverted Birth (2014) [length: 8 minutes and 22 seconds]
What do you think is happening? What were your initial reactions when you saw the video? Why do you think this video arouses these possible responses? How do you think the man who is being drenched by the different fluids feels? Why would his reaction differ depending on this fluid that is falling on him? What is your reaction to the black, red, white, and clear fluids? Why do you think Viola chose these colors instead of others? How would your perception of the work change if the colors were green, blue, or yellow? How do you think colors influence our way of perceiving things?
The artist describes five stages in Inverted Birth: darkness, fear, relief, purification, and acceptance. How could you relate each moment in the video with one of these stages? Explain your answer. Likewise, Viola believes that each fluid symbolizes the essence of human life and the life cycle. Which stage in human existence can you associate each of the fluids? Relate your reflections to the title of the work: Inverted Birth. Why do you think he gave the work this title? If you could change the title, what would you call it? Why?
The size of the projected image is 7.5 meters by 4.22 meters. The man who appears in the scene is four times larger than life size. How does the size of the work affect the way we interact with it? How would a smaller scale affect the impact of the work? Furthermore, the video is projected in slow motion and backwards. Do you think you would perceive it differently if you saw it at standard speed and moving forward? How long do you think it would last? What do you think the artist achieves with these effects? What were you able to notice because of the peculiar way it is projected? What do you think is accentuated by projecting it like this, and what is lost? You can watch the making-of video of this work. What did you notice?
Create a collage based on the 5 stages of Inverted Birth
To Bill Viola, Inverted Birth reflects five stages: darkness, fear, relief, purification, and acceptance. To begin, brainstorm and jot down a list of words that you think represent these stages or feelings described by the artist. Think about when you have experienced this stage and how you felt. Once you have your list, look for different images that you think can represent these stages in magazines, newspapers, brochures, advertisements, catalogues, etc. Then create your collage. It can be figurative or abstract, but the most important thing is that it represents your perspective on the stages that Viola shows in his work. Share your collage with your classmates and reflect on their similarities or differences.
Create a video using different filters
Even though Bill Viola does not use filters in his video Inverted Birth, color is one of its main features. Get into groups of 2 or 3 students and choose 5 words from the list you made for the collage. Together with your group mates, brainstorm actions or movements that could represent that word. Find a white background and white clothing so that one of the students can represent the word in the action you are going to do. The other two should shoot the 5 short videos with a digital camera. Using Instagram, you can also explore how filters help accentuate certain aspects of the video. Share with your classmates the videos and the words that each action represents. Reflect together on the creative process.
Video art: An art movement based on moving images comprised of video and/or audio data. Video art emerged in the United States and Europe in the early 1960’s and peaked in the last years of the 20th century. Today it is still a valid art form.