RIGA - The "Isle of Dreams" exhibition, which is now showing at the Gallery Noass, is one of those rather rare contemporary art exhibitions that reveals the sheer pleasure of letting art speak for itself.
The show is made up of the work of 16 artists from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as two of the world's leading video artists, Bill Viola (U.S.A.) and Joao Penalva (Portugal). Together, their work creates a sort of islandlike state, partly in a thematic sense and partly through the choice of media.
The gallery setting is integral to the idea behind the show. The Gallery Noass is a multifunctional boat docked in a small wharf just in front of the Hotel Radisson. It's the perfect place for these thought-provoking and strangely unsettling images.
For those who are more or less familiar with the field of video art, it will undoubtedly be a real treat to see Bill Viola's "The Passing" and Joao Penalva's "Kitsune." While their works are a fixed feature at the Tate Modern in London or the Guggenheim in New York, it's rare that artists of their stature get shown in Riga.
Bill Viola has been creating architectural video installations, sound environments and electronic music performances for over 30 years. Since the early 1970s Viola has used video to explore the phenomenon of sense perception as an avenue to self-knowledge. His works focus on universal human experiences such as birth, death and the unfolding of consciousness. Their roots lie in both Eastern and Western art, as well as spiritual traditions such as Zen, Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism.
Viola's work "The Passing" is a profoundly moving work that embodies some four years of experience that the artist went through. It's a 54-minute black-and-white video that simultaneously shows the birth of his son and the death of his mother in a grainy, shimmering merged image. These two events, which represent the ultimate extremities of life, incited the artist to investigate some fundamental questions. Viola's work really is at the cutting edge of contemporary art. His images are almost spiritual in the way they evoke the body as a shimmering form of diffuse energy. It's almost impossible not to be moved by them and moved to meditation.
Joao Penalva's "Kitsune" (the transliteration of the Japanese ideograms for the word "fox" and also "the fox spirit") presents a single long shot - an undulating, barren landscape filmed on an island in Japan. Here spectators listen to a sound-track mix of the voices of two elderly Japanese men, set against the backdrop of a misty forest vista. But no figures emerge; there is only an expansive rhythm and punctuation of their voices coinciding with a shifting blanket of fog over the landscape.
In my experience, people rarely watch a work of video art from beginning to end. For Marko Laimre's (Estonia) work, however, it was nice to see that nearly everyone remained till the end. There was something bizarrely, yet warmly transfixing about the spectacle of a handicapped man in a wheel chair sitting at the bottom of a swimming pool.