Bill Viola, “Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat)” (1979).

Sep 29 2010

Chott el-Djerid

Since we’re experiencing a relative heatwave in the Bay Area, I thought I’d write about something vaguely appropriate. Bill Viola’s video is set in a 5,000-square kilometer salt lake in the Sahara Desert that receives 100 millimeters of rain a year, according to Wikipedia. (Chott el-Djerid is also famous for something entirely cinematically different: it stands in for the planet of Tatooine in the Star Wars saga.)

Despite the promise of heat, however, the film begins with shots of snow-blanketed fields in Saskatchewan and Illinois, and it’s only in retrospect that the viewer understands the juxtaposition: different climates, but with a similar visual uncertainty, experienced while you watch a telephone pole shiver in the gray. More accurately, the film starts with nothing but blinding whiteness, while an undefinable shape fades in off-center. We hear a loud rumble, and it’s almost disappointing to realize that it’s probably just a truck passing by. (The soundtrack is fascinating throughout, all hiss and howl and subterranean growl.)

The camera hardly moves, except to zoom in on occasion*, and this is Viola’s most explicit reference, as it were, to the technological. Otherwise the audience’s eye is equated squarely with the video camera’s lens, and this, I think, is crucial to one of Viola’s main points: that our act of seeing these natural impossibilities are in fact largely unmediated.

The version I saw on the big screen was somehow ribboned at the bottom with chromatic aberration — the kind that I associate with those nth-generation bootleg video transfers I used to watch in my provincial town in the Philippines — but it oddly mirrored the distortion we see above it. For the waves of heat alter buses and people alike, turning them into smeared tendrils. Buses float and mutate and merge like ungainly amoebas.

This alien shimmer of heat renders the Tunisian landscape pulsing and unstable, rock formations like clouds of ink. You watch as a truck drive into a field of ripple; the effect is almost unsettling, as if the vehicle is about to dematerialize once it passes through.

A human figure walks diagonally towards the camera — except that it starts as a mere dot, a mote growing larger until we realize what it is — then it stops being a dot. Throughout Viola’s video, objects merely hover at the border of our understanding, between the familiar and unfamiliar. This alienating effect is repeated with a red truck, but without (literally) a frame of reference in terms of perspective it appears to glide across the horizon.

What Viola seems to be interested in is the instability of our visual comprehension of the world around us. But this unearthly beauty isn’t necessarily the product of artifice from the editing room — which is where film, particularly in its early experimental years, has interrogated individual perception. In Chott el-Djerid, it’s nature itself that messes with your eyes.

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*At certain points, though, it’s clear that Viola is merely moving his tripod forward to create an artificial “zoom” during editing; we see a quicker version of this in The Space Between the Teeth (1976), for instance.

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