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Bill Viola: The Passions

29 July – 6 November 2005

Introduction | The Passions | Viola by night – ART-TALKS-FILMS-MUSIC

Bill Viola and The Passions

Since the 1970s Bill Viola’s videotapes and installations have dealt with themes of perception, memory and self-awareness. Emotions are the subject of The Passions, an ongoing series begun in 2000. In these works Viola grapples with one of the oldest problems in art: how to convey the power and complexity of emotion by depicting the faces and bodies of models – specifically, in his works, of performers.

Viola immersed himself in the conventions of expression during a period of study at the Getty Research Institute in 1998. His encounters with older painting and theories of emotional expression – codified in the 17th century by French painter Charles Le Brun – led him to the challenge of showing inbetween states: transitions and ambiguous or mixed emotions.

One of the first works in The Passions series, The Quintet of the Astonished, was commissioned by the National Gallery, London, and was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of a quartet of executioners surrounding Christ. Shot on high-speed film, permitting the action to be slowed drastically when played back, the video is an intense tableau of shifting and momentary emotions. The relationships between the figures were unplanned and exist in varying intensities over the work’s duration.

In Six Heads a single individual is the subject of study. Nevertheless, a sense of dialogue seems to develop between the figure’s various expressions in the adjacent images. In abandoning the rich colour of the majority of The Passions works Viola makes reference to Le Brun’s engraved studies and perhaps even to later 19th century experiments of a darker nature, including those by Dr Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne. In the French neurologist’s study patients with psychological disorders were subject to electric shocks in order to elicit a full range of facial expressions.

Bill VIOLA ' The Quintet of the Astonished' 2000, video rear projection on wall-mounted screen, artist's proof, collection of the artist, � Bill Viola, photograph: Kira Perov   Bill VIOLA 'The Quintet of the Astonished' 2000, video rear projection on wall-mounted screen, artist’s proof, collection of the artist, © Bill Viola, photograph: Kira Perov
Bill VIOLA ' Six Heads' 2000, video on wall-mounted plasma display, artist's proof, collection of the artist, � Bill Viola, photograph: Kira Perov   Bill VIOLA 'Six Heads' 2000, video on wall-mounted plasma display, artist’s proof, collection of the artist, © Bill Viola, photograph: Kira Perov   Guillaume-Benjamin DUCHENNE de BOULOGNE Plate 7 in 'M�canisme de la physiognomie humaine [The mechanisms of human facial expression]' Paris: Chez Veuve Jules Renouard 1862 (Octavo edition), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2005   Guillaume-Benjamin DUCHENNE de BOULOGNE Plate 7 in 'Mécanisme de la physiognomie humaine [The mechanisms of human facial expression]' Paris: Chez Veuve Jules Renouard 1862 (Octavo edition), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2005

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This text has been adapted from the brochure produced by the J. Paul Getty Museum for its presentation of Bill Viola: The Passions in 2003