Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat) almost magically captures the optical and acoustic distortions of nature. Focused on landscape, the video work dwells briefly on the snowy plains of midwestern America and Saskatchewan, then abruptly switches to the arid Tunisian desert. Viola investigates the world of illusion and how it is made. He works by slowly discovering the distinctive character of a place, probing its power and energy, drawing upon the associations it evokes, and searching instinctively for its archetypal symbols. In Tunisia, he was fascinated by the pastel-colored desert mirages floating mysteriously near the horizon.
To shoot Chott el-Djerid, the artist used one video camera set on a tripod and meticulously framed his subject from a fixed vantage point. He would only begin filming when he considered ideal atmospheric conditions to have occurred; at times he waited up to several days. He moved his camera only a few inches forward or backward between many shots so that he could fabricate a zoom during editing. In his studio, Viola carefully developed the rhythm of this nonverbal narrative of ordinary events happening in real time. Its pace compels viewers to assume a mindset of dreamlike suspended animation. It is filled with ambient natural sounds that temper its sense of otherworldliness: for example, the viewer first identifies an oncoming pair of motorcycles through aural, rather than visual, cues.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 304.