Subscribe for 99¢
St. Louis Art Museum exhibit
The St. Louis Art Museum is displaying this high-definition video by artist Bill Viola. Photo: Kira Perov; courtesy of the artist

Bill Viola was into video before it was fashionable. Way before.

The artist, whose installation "Visitation" is on display through Sept. 6 at the St. Louis Art Museum, has been exploring the artistic possibilities of the medium for more than 35 years. Compared to him, all those aspiring YouTube stars are definitely late to the party.

"I was lucky to get in on the ground floor of a completely new medium," Viola, 59, said recently from his studio in Long Beach, Calif. "That was thrilling and empowering and extraordinary.

"Myself and my colleagues forged a new art form — which, in the digital world today, everybody just takes for granted. But we were on the cutting edge of it when it was just being created."

His work has been presented in solo and group exhibitions at prominent venues including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery in London and the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin. In 1989, Viola was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant.

Viola said he is "absolutely delighted" that "Visitation," which was inspired by the devotional art of the Middle Ages, is being presented alongside the "Mourners" exhibition at SLAM "as a kind of counterpoint" to the sculptures.

"I don't distinguish between past and present," he said. "There is a big push that we all are engaged in, in wanting to have the newest in innovation — and I think that's all really great. But I also feel that human beings need to be aware of, and grounded in, history.

"So I was very excited, as a contemporary artist, to be in this show of historical art. It's something that I feel very connected to, anyway."

"Visitation," a 2008 video installation that runs a bit more than 12 minutes before repeating itself, begins with two grainy, black and white figures slowly moving toward the viewer amid grayish static. In a few moments, the figure on the right touches something that proves to be a wall of falling water.

The two break through the water, now in color and revealed to be casually dressed women — played by Pam Blackwell and Weba Garretson. But although each appears to be experiencing intense emotion, they remain silent. At one point, their left hands touch. Eventually, the women retreat through the water, once again becoming colorless and indistinct.

It's left to the viewer to speculate about the meaning of their journey from darkness to light and back again, and its relationship to the transitory nature of life, the inevitability of death and the spirituality of existence.

"Visitation" is part of Viola's "Transfigurations" series. What one comes away with is an appreciation for the ability of images to express what words may not.

"Basically, what the piece is is a description of life and death," Viola said. "With our brief time here on Earth, sort of in the middle."

"Transfigurations" is in much the same spirit as the artist's previous series, "Ocean Without a Shore," whose title was derived from the writings of Islamic mystic Ibn Arabi: "The self is an ocean without a shore. There is no end to the contemplation of it in this world or the next."

Arabi's words, Viola said, had a deep significance for him.

"That was one of the most profound descriptions of what a human being is that I've heard," he said. "And having lost both my parents in the 1990s, that was a very affirming thing to discover — that basically, we are eternal."

Both series depict people moving through water walls, but with a difference. In the "Ocean" series, which was created for the San Gallo Church as part of the Venice Bienniale in 2007, individuals break through the wall. But the "Transfigurations" series involves combinations of people, such as in "Visitation."

Although they were created centuries apart, both "The Mourners" and "Visitation" invite the viewer to enter a state of contemplation, Viola said.

"Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul," he said. "Because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep."