The National Gallery of Australia presents Bill Viola: The Passions, a mesmerising exhibition of recent works by the internationally-renowned American video and sound installation artist. Organised by the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles – then shown in London and Madrid – Bill Viola: The Passions is on display in Canberra only, until 6 November. As well as 12 works from The Passions series, the exhibition includes Five Angels for the Millennium 2001, an all-enveloping environment of sight and sound.
Since the 1970s Viola’s videos and installations have dealt with themes of perception, memory and self-awareness. In 1998, during a period of study at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, Viola immersed himself in the artistic conventions of expression. The results of this research – encounters with old master paintings, and with theories of emotional expression – led him to the challenge of depicting ambiguous or mixed emotions. In The Passions, an ongoing series begun in 2000, Viola tackles one of the oldest problems in art: how to convey the power and complexity of human feelings. Using new technology, he examines the manifestations of emotions, through silence, extreme slow-motion, and psychologically-gripping depictions of the faces and bodies of his performers.
Viola draws on a wide range of sources including both Eastern and Western art, as well as spiritual traditions such as Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism. At the Getty Viola was drawn to religious works of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to particular paintings in which he perceived a mystical intensity. He looked at an The Annunciation of 1450–55 by Dieric Bouts, and Caspar David Friedrich’s meditative figure in A walk at dusk c.1830–35.1 Later he considered the style of small, private devotional works intended to focus the viewer’s mediation on Christ’s suffering,2 and large, multi-panelled altarpieces in which numerous temporal scenes from a single narrative or concurrent events are portrayed, or in which many key figures are compressed within the space.3
Viola’s background in music, performance and as a studio engineer also informs his practice. Unlike his early work, where he used the first portable video cameras and often served as his own subject, Viola now commissions actors and employs the sort of infrastructure usually associated with major commercial film projects. His use of digital flat-panel plasma screens produces extraordinarily bright, vivid pictures – the references to everyday life invite a range of entry points – while behind the scenes, the works are made possible by a complex infrastructure of technology. Viola shoots on high-speed 35mmm film: at 210 frames per second, it is almost seven times normal speed, and allows extreme slow motion without fragmentation or loss of continuity. The chosen take is transferred to high-definition digital video and during post-production editing the colour, adjustments to the contrast, textures and other details are completed.
Three works indicate the range of formats within Bill Viola: The Passions, from the small LCD panels, through rear-projected videos, culminating in the full ‘environment’ of the installation work. One from the first group of The Passion series, the free-standing diptych Dolorosa 2000, evokes human suffering. A woman and a man, shown side-by-side and slightly larger than life, are in the throes of extreme sorrow: tears stream down their cheeks. They are independent but related, and in the course of the cycle seem to refer to one another, acknowledging their separate but shared grief. In 2001 he explained:
I’ve been looking at the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, when making art drastically changed. You not only had the development of vantage-point perspective, but you also had a population that was becoming increasingly mobile thanks to the money generated by a rising merchant class. People were also hitting the roads, and all of a sudden there was a demand for private, devotional illustrated prayer books. So artists started making little panel paintings that were latched and hinged, that you could open and close and take with you. When you got to your inn, you could open it up and do your prayers; it was like everyone getting their own laptop, basically.
Filmed in a golden light – with the type of generic background found in commercial photographic studios – Dolorosa at once suggests meditation on the inevitable fate of Jesus as the saviour of Christians while making reference to domestic family photographs. In extreme slow-motion, and on continuous loop, the female and male figures exist in an eternal and perpetual sorrow, a meditation on the Every Man.
In Emergence 2002, a work commissioned by the J Paul Getty Museum, two women who sit and wait witness an extraordinary event: from the marble cistern the head of a young man appears, his pale body rises up, and water spills out and onto the floor. At full extension the women catch the male figure who then collapses and is gently lowered onto the floor, covered with a cloth. Cradling his head, the older woman breaks down in tears, while the younger woman embraces his body, overcome with emotion. The whole cycle last about 12 minutes. In his most direct quotation from earlier art, Viola has taken inspiration from Masolino’s frescoed Pietà 14244 in which the Madonna and St John mourn the dead Christ standing upright in a sarcophagus. However in the twentieth century, a high-definition video rear projection, Viola has staged a scene which is birth, the act of love, an entombment and the resurrection all wrapped into one. Rather than appropriating or restaging, he wanted to ‘get inside’ the pictures – to embody, to inhabit and to feel them breathe – encapsulating a spiritual dimension, rather than the visual form. Emergence promotes a multiple of readings and of the work Viola comments: ‘To our contemporary eye, it’s a drowning; in my inner eye, midwifery. Images have their life because they're untethered and free-flowing.’
Five Angels for the Millennium 2001 is another form of The Passions, described by the artist as ‘the reservoir from which they come’ or ‘an enveloping emotional experience like that of a church’. Entering a large, dark room the viewer encounters five giant, highly-coloured figures: the Departing, Birth, Fire, Ascending and Creation Angels are suffused with a soundscape of water, washed with escaping air bubbles, and punctuated by drips, insects and other aqueous noise. The underwater footage of each of Viola’s performers plunging into a pool, sinking and then emerging from, or hovering above, the water plays simultaneously and on a loop. Visitors are surrounded by the five channels, not all of which can be experienced at once, and the sensory overload threatens to overwhelm. Moreover the angel’s appearances are infrequent: they burst in slow-motion, seemingly weightless and without absolute form, into an underwater domain which is, in turn, translated into the cosmos surrounded by an infinity of stars. Five Angels for the Millennium disrupts and exhilarates through Viola’s effective use of scale, pitch and punctuation, his controlled references to archetypes, psychology and spirituality, becoming an allegory for life in the twenty-first century.
Viola insists on substantial investments of time: only by adjusting his or her schedule to the pace and subtly of the works will the viewer share the power and complexity that is human emotion – in intimacy and silence, and on a far grander stage.
Visually stunning, often highly aesthetic and emotionally intense, The Passions diptychs and polyptychs, projections or installations, offer a new and surprising aspect of Viola’s art, a continuity of his long-term concerns combined with an exceptional use of new media. Bill Viola: The Passions promises to be a ‘must-see’ for anyone interested in art, moving image, performance, technology and the big issues in life.
Coordinating curator for the exhibition and Curator, International Painting and Sculpture
This exhibition has been organised by the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
Proudly sponsored by
The Sarah and Baillieu Myer Family Foundation
1 both collection J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles
2 see, for example, Mater Dolorosa and Christ crowned with thorns c.1470–75, from the Workshop of Dieric Bouts, from the National Gallery, London
3 refer Hieronymus Bosch’s Christ mocked (The crowning with thorns) c.1490–1500 in the National Gallery, London, as inspiration for The Quintet of the Astonished 2000; Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the cross c.1435 (Museo Nacional de Prado, Madrid), Hans Memling’s The Virgin, St John and the holy women c.1475 (Museo de Arte de Sao Paolo) and Albrecht Dürer’s The four apostles 1526 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) are also important sources.
4 Museo della Collegiata di Sant' Andrea, Empoli
This article was published in Antiques and Art May–July 2005
Go to the Getty Bill Viola: The Passions website