Bill Viola’s ‘Inverted Birth’ Video Installation Will Mess With Your Mind


It’s Jesus’ birthday week (oh, heck — birthday month!) and all the chatter about a knocked-up virgin got us wondering: What really went down in that Bethlehem barn? When do we ever hear about Mary’s labor? Joseph remained tight-lipped, the livestock kept mum. It’s not like, voilà, here’s your holy baby! It must have been tough.

Mary’s ordeal, along with every birth we ever watched on Nat Geo, will come tumbling to mind while watching Inverted Birth, the title video of Bill Viola‘s six-screen show at James Cohan. The showstopper, an imagining of a grown man being “born,” will fuck mightily with your head.

Viola has spent four decades tweaking moving-image conventions while exploring the Larger Issues of Human Existence. Many of his signature works move at a snail’s pace — daring us to walk away, then riveting us with material that is more painterly than pixelated. The other five works on display in “Bill Viola: Inverted Birth” are of the sluggish sort, but they’re too self-serious to be successful. Four of them make up Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), a 2014 commission that’s on permanent view at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London depicting a quartet of people having very, very bad days: One gets whaled on by fake-looking fireballs; another is strung up by his feet and drenched; yet another is mostly buried in dirt…. You get the idea. It all feels a bit heavy for Chelsea.

Which isn’t to say Viola’s centerpiece here doesn’t traffic in Big Ideas. But it’s so over-the-top — dramatically installed in a blackened room and projected in the H-est of HD on a screen nearly three times human height — that it works.

Viola presents the footage backward, so we see those sheets of liquid fly off Scott as if he’s an exploding star.

The “inversion” of the title refers to the conceit of the piece: The footage is screened in reverse. To make it, an actor was doused in gallon upon gallon of liquid for nearly eight minutes straight, like a gargantuan ice-bucket challenge minus the ice. Performer Norman Scott stolidly clenches and unclenches his fists and gasps for air under the onslaught, in a pantomime of the struggles of birth.

But Viola presents the footage backward, so we see those sheets of liquid fly off Scott as if he’s an exploding star. He starts out covered in the mucky brown goop pooling at his feet and we watch as the stuff levitates off him in mucusy sheets to an audio track that sounds like a train thundering past. At first the viscous veils are milky brown, then they turn bloody, then milky, and finally clear. We end with a dry guy with a mist coming up behind him.

What’s beguiling about the whole experience — other than the sheer drama of it — is how desperately the mind wants to screen it in the proper direction. We’re not sure if we’re looking at something moving backward or forward, and what’s real and what’s contrived seem to merge. That kind of bewilderment seems about right, at least in the face of mortality and the mysteries around birth and death, and Viola captures it in a single dramatic gesture.

Bill Viola: Inverted Birth
James Cohan
533 West 26th Street
Through January 30, 2016