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England, November 27, 2000

Somebody Calls It 'Art'

Bill's Nantes triptych will knock you off your feet

The fun twisting colors of Tate
The Tate confuses planes too
Big Brother is Watching You
Agh! Floating heads again!
The birthing scene is massive
I've had a few nights like that
respect death
Do you understand modern art? I mean, can anyone understand it all? Yesterday, my friend Malenea was in London from Denmark and we went to the Tate Gallery of Modern Art for a Sunday afternoon of confusion.

The Tate Gallery itself is impressive, with a beautiful museum carved from an old power plant on the South Bank of the Tames River. I was particularly impressed by the huge open space inside that gives the museum a light feeling not usually associated with power plants. Once inside the actually exhibition space, the mood changed for me. I was overcome by wonder. I was full of wonder that someone could think of that stuff as 'art.'

Does anyone really understand the meaning of a big wooden box with a red interior? I know the Japanese are weird, but a black room filled with little calculator screens counting to 999,999,999? My personal favorite is in the National Gallery, East Wing in Washington DC. It is three panels of canvas painted white, with the title 'White Panels'. Next to it, are three panels painted black, called? Yes, 'Black Panels.' The museum paid $90,000 for each 'painting,' which is beyond me.

Now, in all this mess, there is a modern artist that I can understand, most of the time anyway. Bill Viola works with huge video installations, and I can still remember the first one I saw many years ago. You walk into a dark room where a huge panel, almost the size of the room, rotates in the middle. It is white on one side and a mirror on the other, alternately showing or reflecting a video of random and intense images.

I don't remember if I reacted the way he wanted me to, but I do remember standing in that room until my friends dragged me out. In the same show, I saw his notes on how each of his installations should be presented. Down to the millimeter and floor angle, Bill commands exactly how each work should be displayed, with explanatory notes on why the paint must be gloss vs. flat black.

Now I don't get all his works. The one in which a huge video shows him either on fire or under a shower escapes me, but the film I saw on Sunday really hit home. In the Tate's 'Between Cinema and a Hard Place' exhibit, Bill Viola's 'Nantes triptych' was on display.

Using the triptych from the Renaissance Church altarpiece as a format, Bill has three videos showing next to each other on huge screens. To the left is a woman in the final stages of a natural childbirth, in the middle is an image floundering around a swimming pool in a white sheet, and on the right is Bill's dying mother in a hospital bed.

Yes, he is showing the cycle of life, where we flop around between the beauty of birth and the horror of death. I was in awe watching the film, so caught up in the screams of the mom, the weird music of the sheet-man, and the rasping of his Mom's ventilator, I didn't notice my own physical reactions. By the time the Mom started giving birth, I was not breathing right, and the moment the child's head came out of the woman, I was so lightheaded that I had to sit down for fear of passing out and collapsing in the theatre.

I've never been so moved by a work of art in my life. Yeah, Salvador Dali is tight with detail, Rembrandt sweet with light, and Michelangelo a whiz with stone, but none ever took my breath away so long I almost fainted.

I still can't give modern art much credit, for Bill's work is amazing but it cannot make up for all the soup cans of stupidity. Maybe if they took a page from Mr. Viola, and come up with something better than a giant wood 3-way plug I would be more impressed and wander to the Tate Modern again.

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