Scene from "The Raft" by Bill Viola (2004)
Scene from "The Raft" by Bill Viola (2004)

Try to watch “The Raft” without picturing the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. It’s not possible, not in the waning days of 2016. Bill Viola’s 2004 video masterwork may predate the North Dakota standoff by more than a decade, but it reads like an artist’s visceral response to the crisis.

“The Raft” pictures about 20 people, of various races, ethnicities, and ages gathered together in a nondescript space. They could be anyone and anywhere; they assemble, as if they were all waiting for the same delinquent bus. Instead they are met by the hose. In excruciatingly slow motion, percussive streams of water assault them from stage left and right, blowing them away, casting their bodies down, over, and across one another.

Just try to watch “The Raft” and imagine what this work meant before a crisis that gave the country mni wiconi—a Lakota phrase that means “water is life.”

Water is life and much more in Viola’s work, which is on view in The Moving Portrait, a survey of dread menace at the National Portrait Gallery. Water factors into nearly all his works, and, in the best of them, water is an insensate force, the medium and the message. “The Raft” is Viola’s best work, and in 2016, a time of rising anxiety over authority, it has taken on a sudden new urgency.

Once the assault begins, most of the figures lose coherence, appearing only as grasping arms or cantilevered legs cutting through the foamy maelstrom. One silver-haired woman is utterly blown off her feet. She does not rise again. The crushing waters quickly overwhelm the visual plane of the video —even in slow motion. Drenched figures foregrounded in the cacophony perform a morality play, trying at times to support somebody else but more often clobbering one another by accident. A man tries in vain to grasp a purse lost by a woman in the melee. It’s a small but wrenching civic gesture in the face of calamity.

With “The Raft,” as in most of his works, Viola cites an elemental piece of art history: in this case Théodore Géricault’s painting, “The Raft of the Medusa (1818–19).” That painting depicts the aftermath of the wreck of a French naval frigate, with bodies clamoring for purchase on a makeshift raft as waves crash around them. Reconfiguring old masterworks in new media was all the rage in the heady art-market days leading up to the financial collapse; see also Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “That White Rush” (2007), a rather literal video depiction of the story of Leda and the Swan.

Nearly a decade after the collapse, however, the waters have yet to recede. Austerity and authoritarianism have compounded the global financial catastrophe. Not many artworks that in their own time looked fashionable feel so prescient. In 2016, a more appropriate antecedent to “The Raft” may be Picasso’s “Guernica.”

The Moving Portrait illustrates how a savvy curator with precise timing can reframe a well-known artist’s work. Viola’s work, which is so slow and deliberate as to nearly be durational performance art, arrives as an expression of inchoate distress. National Portrait Gallery curator Asma Naeem has discovered something unexpectedly relevant under the surface of Viola’s brooding water works—the viewer, perhaps, gasping for air.

In the video diptych “Surrender (2001),” for example, two figures—a man and a woman—are connected at the waist across a horizontal plane, as if each is looking into his or her (opposite) reflection in a mirror. The figures slowly bend toward their reflective opposites, as if to kiss, but the narcissistic moment is interrupted when the figures break the plane—not a mirror but a reflective pool. Viola’s cinematic magic comes in transforming the plain into the extraordinary by simply slowing the speed of his videos to the pace of rolling amber. Post-baptism, the figures in “Surrender” sputter as anyone would after a dunk, but in Viola’s post-production magic, their faces are rendered with anguish and distorted by ripples along the surface.

Viola strives to depict universalities at the same time that he works to undermine them. “Dolorosa (2000),” another diptych, comprises a portrait of a white woman alongside a portrait of an Indian man. Both are captured sobbing, but so slowly that it seems to take whole minutes for single tears to fall. In any other year, this piece might seem to gesture at the wholeness of the human experience, but recent events cast that project in doubt. 

The Moving Portrait is not, of course, a summary statement about the election of President-elect Donald Trump. One of the more recent of Viola’s videos, “The Dreamers (2013),” a sequence of seven life-size, high-definition video portraits of people submerged underwater, reads like a non-sequitur in that context. The portraits are overly romanticized, like John Everett Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia (1851–52), although the everyman figures themselves could be your coworkers or neighbors. What makes Viola relevant today is the fluidity, ambiguity, and fragility he finds in people, not the better angels of our nature.

Viola uses water and time—elements that defract light and space—to destabilize his subjects. He distorts that surface between the viewer and subject, like drawing a curtain across the stage. This is important stuff, because the meaning of a portrait is never frozen within a subject. Viewers test the waters every time they come to it. The meaning of a portrait ripples with time.

So when viewers see the uncertainty underneath the surface of Viola’s portraits, they see a reflection of themselves. The Raft really is a portrait of Standing Rock, insofar as it a sweeping statement about people, seemingly powerless in the face of history, struggling to assert the right to stand on their feet. It is simultaneously a portrait of people falling down.

The Portrait Gallery too rarely tackles such serious themes, as the museum did in 2010 with “Hide/Seek,” a show of queer portraiture that led to the most disturbing censorship incident in the Smithsonian Institution’s recent history. “The Moving Portrait” shows how badly the nation needs artists to hold up a mirror, to show us more clearly—or at least with more urgency—for who we are. Viola’s survey demonstrates that America has never needed portraiture more.

To May 7, 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th Street NW & F Street NW. Free.