A subversion of order: decorticating Inverted Birth and its upward downpour

November 7, 2017

Bill Viola: Movements is a tool designed by DHC/ART Education to encourage visitors to develop and elaborate on some key concepts of the exhibition Bill Viola: Naissance à rebours.

Content: Materiality

There is no question that Bill Viola’s large-scale works – and the power that they emit – provoke thought and contemplation. It is like stepping into an out-of-body, spiritual, and transcendental experience. Beyond this, there is a kind of visceral reaction that the presence of his works demands. We are reminded of our bodies in the presence of other bodies, of our physicality, of our skin, its sensitivity, the feeling of a touch – and the weight that Viola’s subjects can endure. But the deluge in Inverted Birth (2014) is reversed: it is an upward downpour, and presents the idea of a life cycle that doesn’t necessarily begin with birth and end with death. Viola has described Inverted Birth as depicting “five stages of awakening” [1] which are represented by physical elements that make up our lives, including earth, blood, milk, water and air.

Reflections and reactions abound when experiencing Inverted Birth. Making sense of these in a sequential manner is not always an easy task. Perhaps the only way to approach an understanding of one’s own reactions to the work is in a way that allows for a fluctuation, that can be copied and pasted, edited and deleted. A subversion, rather than an inversion, of the orderly text. No intro, body and conclusion. Just words born from the senses.

Here are some of mine:

– Passages in states of being, in thoughtfulness, in awakening, moving from one state to the next in a fluid motion – the violence of it, the beauty of it.
– The materiality of a work that is video, that holds a performance, that is unattainable, but is something that we can relate to and understand on many levels.
– The presence of the work, of recognizing something that we can all imagine feeling, in a physical sense.
– The body and what it can sustain, survive, overcome, experience, take.
– Patience of the viewer. The work unfolds slowly. It takes its time.
– Time, nonmaterial, but so tangible in slow-motion works… it’s like you’re holding on to time as you watch this process unfold before you.
– Unnatural movement of the water, an upward deluge, defying gravity.
– The supernatural.
– The idea of a cycle – birth and death and rebirth – as opposed to separate ends of a linear system.

Note some of your own reflections on another of Viola’s works. What do you notice after this exercise? How did you organize your thoughts? How did the experience of making a list affect your experience of the work?

How does your understanding of Viola’s work balance the spiritual versus the material quality? Do you feel that they are in opposition to each other, or do they co-exist harmoniously?

Amanda Beattie
DHC/ART Education


[1] HANHARDT, John D. (2015). “2000s : A Humanism for Our Times.” Bill Viola. Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux, pp. 239.


Photo credit: Bill Viola, Inverted Birth, 2014. Courtesy of Bill Viola Studio.

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