The artist Bill Viola was, he has said, a boy of about 4 or 5 when he plunged off a raft on a lake in upstate New York.

He fell to the bottom like a rock and he sat at the bottom, by his account, like a little Buddha, suddenly aware that he had entered into a whole different realm of being, with beautiful strange plants and colors and motions. He found himself caught up in a kind of ecstasy, but of course he was also drowning. Only because his uncle dived in and pulled him to the surface did he survive.

Viola went on to become the best known and most shown of artists working in video today. “I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola” is the new exhibition at the Barnes Foundation, opening Sunday and running through Sept. 15.

Viola’s story of his childhood brush with transcendence and death seems to explain almost too much about his art. For one thing, he is fascinated by water, the way it looks when it flows, and the way it reflects and refracts when it is isolated into drops. He also associates the flow of water with the flow of electrons that bring his video works to life.

Bill Viola's "Pneuma" (1994/2009)
Kira Perov
Bill Viola's "Pneuma" (1994/2009)

The most important implication of Viola’s summertime memory, however, is that Viola believes he had seen a glimpse of something more real than ordinary reality. He had found a spiritual realm, whose special intensity comes from its nearness to death.

Thus, as a young man studying art, he also began a lifelong practice of reading mystical thinkers. And once he started experimenting with video, he saw it as a way to communicate a vision that is deeply influenced by artists of the past but completely different from what came before.

Ambiguity attracts

The ambiguity of the electronic image draws in the eye. We most often think of video as in instrument of abstraction, but Viola attempts to use it as a spur to contemplation.

Viola’s intentions are deeply serious. Death and life, seeing and knowing, being and suffering, are big themes. And Viola makes big, often room-sized works of art whose investment in space and technology places a burden on each to be memorable.

The Barnes show has seven works. In addition, the 90-minute video that gives the exhibition its name is being shown in the basement auditorium on selected days. The Fabric Workshop and Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts will also be showing works by Viola from their collections during the Barnes show’s run.

Given its ambitions, this exhibition feels far less consequential than it should. It includes a couple of his key works, along with others that might seem as if they are not worth the trouble.

Bill Viola's "He Weeps for You" (1976), at the Barnes Foundation.
Kira Perov
Bill Viola's "He Weeps for You" (1976), at the Barnes Foundation.

The final work visitors see, He Weeps for You (1976), is the earliest and most engaging work in the show, and one of the most important of Viola’s career. The artist has pointed a camera with a special lens at a faucet he has calibrated to drip large, slow drops.

The image the camera sees, which is projected on a wall, reveals that each droplet is a wide-angle lens, which takes in the room, including the viewer. You see the drip expand and break, then fall onto an amplified drum head to produce a loud, resonant sound.

This work looks a little bit like a science project, and it comes from a time when the artist was experimenting with the possibilities of his new medium. It is appealing more for its ingenuity than its profundity, but the tiny room in the pregnant drop of water is really something to see.

Back to the lake

Ascension (2000), which occupies a dark room at the center of the exhibition, is virtually a reenactment of Viola’s boyhood story at the lake. On one wall is a roughly 8-by 12-foot projection of something ambiguous. When, suddenly, a clothed man plummets into it from above, we realize it is water.

He creates a lot of bubbles and turbulence as he falls very slowly toward the bottom. Then he rises back to the top, floats passively for a time, then starts to sink until he falls below our vision.

The video continues for a time as viewers wait to see whether the man reappears, but he does not. There is a religious dimension to this; the title telegraphs it. But it is the turbulence and the bubbles that really grab the eye.

By contrast, in Pneuma (1994/2009), a room-sized work with overlapping projections into three of the gallery’s corners, the viewer is engulfed in an environment of electronic noise, the look of television when there is nothing on. Vague images seem to emerge from this fog, though it is difficult to be sure whether that is a body part you are seeing, or whether you are just bored and trying to make sense of all this ambiguity.

More than any work of art I have ever seen, this work makes physical Plato’s parable that people see things as if they are shadows in a cave, and their true reality exists in a different realm.

Bill Viola's "Catherine's Room" (2001), at the Barnes Foundation.
Kira Perov
Bill Viola's "Catherine's Room" (2001), at the Barnes Foundation.

The first gallery contains four works that evoke Renaissance artworks. Catharine’s Room (2001) consists of five small video panels, each of which shows a room in which a woman lives, works, studies, and does yoga at different times of day and in different seasons. By using five panels, it contains its own distractions. We can look from one to another without getting bored.

Observance (2002) is a vertical screen in which we see 18 different people of varying ages and ethnicities expressing and sharing their grief. The artist likens its composition to a work by Albrecht Durer, though most viewers will feel it as a response to 9/11.

The Meeting (1995) stretches a 44-second encounter among three women to 10 minutes and 22 seconds. It is like a barely living painting. I watched the whole thing, wondering why.

Bill Viola's "I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like" (1986)
Kira Perov
Bill Viola's "I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like" (1986)

If you go, I highly recommend trying to be there when I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, from 1986, is being screened. (Wednesdays at 1 p.m., and a handful of Sundays and Fridays.) It a meditation on animal behavior — which is to say, human behavior — that upends the usual nature-film paradigm.

The animals are not being made to play a role in a human story, only to be as strange and wondrous as they are. Patiently, we watch a hatchling peck its way out of an eggshell that seems much smaller than the creature it contains. The newborn bird is entering a new world.

ON EXHIBIT

I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like: The Art of Bill Viola

On exhibit June 30-Sept. 15 at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy.

Museum hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Weds.-Mon. (closed Tuesdays).

The video I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like screens at 1 p.m. every Wednesday during the exhibition’s run. It also plays at noon on the first Sunday of each month during the run, and at 6 p.m. on each first Friday (for patrons of ticketed evening programming).

Tickets: $25, adults; $23, seniors; $5 youth ages 13-18 and college students with ID (children under 13 free).

Information: 215-278-7000 or barnesfoundation.org.