Twenty years on, Bill Viola’s video installation, Tiny Deaths, now at Tate Modern, is still a powerfully provocative experience. How Viola engages with our personal struggles with identity, sense-making and perception is profound. It also offers a fascinating route open to other artists exploring what dementia means – something which Viola is himself not overtly seeking to do in this installation.
Tiny Deaths confronts us directly on our ways of seeing and making sense of things and taps directly into recognisable and deep feelings which somehow remain elusive and worrying. It is unsettling and strangely uplifting at the same time.
The installation is built on a central challenge about the way we perceive the world. It tests us physically by using sound and light provocatively, taking us right to the edge of our ability to make things out.
The whole piece confronts us personally with a real and unavoidable confusion – how do you make sense of a space filled with teasing and threatening cues which trigger feelings which themselves shape the responses to what is happening and yet themselves remain elusively unresolved? It is as good a metaphor for dementia as I have seen.
You enter a completely dark room in which three large scale projection screens form three walls of a rectangle with you as the fourth wall – both spectator and participant. In this deep blackness, fleeting, flashing images are glimpsed on each of the screens as an unsettling soundscape, including vaguely heard voices, envelopes the space. As the swelling and threatening rhythm builds, barely visible, larger-than-life-style figures emerge ghost-like on different screens causing you to change your viewpoint. The sense is of uncertainty about what will happen next and where it will appear. The sound climaxes as a figure becomes momentarily clear, they make a decisive (yet tantalisingly unclear) movement with their bodies. The screen then screams to white, throwing a burning brightness into the whole room. The darkness immediately settles again, the sound drops and the cycle begins until a different figure becomes briefly alive in front of us on another screen.
Installations should be experienced not described of course. It is difficult to stay in the room. It is also difficult to leave the room other than in an altered state. This has been my experience with dementia. Tiny Deaths will stay with me for some time.
Image credit: 2014 © Bill Viola