Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Bill Viola: The Raft

by Genevieve O

12 Apr 2011

With all the rain that has been coming down all over the east and south-east of Australia, American artist Bill Viola’s epic video workThe Raft at Melbourne’s the Australian Centre for the Moving Image is a timeless reminder of the power of a deluge of water.

The setting is a small stretch of street. A number of people – perhaps 10 – are waiting, more or less lined up, for something to arrive and take them away. They are male and female, old and young, and from various cultural backgrounds, as shown by their attire, and race. All these things punctuate the group: light blue pants to the right; a printed orange dress to the left; a blue cardigan in the middle next to a white suit; a man with a book; a white hat towering above the crowd towards the back. All that unites them is the time, their location and what it is they’re waiting for and where it will take them. Slowly, others join the line. Viola has shot the scene in high-speed film, so the action is slowed right down and we, the viewer, are privy to the minutiae of the simple action of moving aside to let someone pass or enter. As one newcomer moves through to the middle of the pack, like an object moving through relatively still water, people on either side look slightly disgruntled and part, ripples radiating outwards. Although some people fidget and seem annoyed by the waiting, it is a relatively serene group.

Without warning, a torrent of water rushes in from the left; another attacks the group from the right. Churned and feverish the frothing white water knocks the line-waiters to their knees, obliterating all the features that originally identified them to the viewer. Some lie sprawled in the water, flattening themselves as if hoping it will pass them by unscathed, while others hold a fortified position hoping to ‘weather the storm’.

When the onslaught of water stops, the former line-waiters attempt to pick themselves back up. Once strangers they now rely intimately on each other – they grapple and cling to cloth-soaked arms, pulling on each other in an effort to get upright. One elderly woman – the blue pants from the right of the scene – has fallen and lay still during the entirety of the downpour. While the debilitating water wrecks havoc, her figure is a constant – she is where our attention is focused or where it constantly returns to. As she is old, you’re undeniably worried she has been seriously wounded and can’t get up. But The Raft is not only about destruction, it is also about destruction’s twin – survival – and there is an amazing sense of hope when, at the close of the video, she begins to rise, helped on either side by her fellow sufferers.

An immersive experience that at once stuns and relieves The Raftleaves no stone unturned. The concept of a ‘raft’ suggests that Viola’s characters, who we gaze on with the same disturbing interest of a reality TV show, have created something that will carry them through the destruction. But, whether they are knocked to the ground or stand their ground, everyone is soaked through-and-through, reminding us that a tragic deluge misses no-one.