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Judging from press commentaries and various conversations following the opening of his exhibition in Australia, Bill Viola’s The Passions (2000-02) and the accompanying Five Angels for the Millennium (2001) have attracted polarised responses. Given the ambitious and grand themes that this major artist most often addresses—forces of life and death (often portrayed through Christian themes in contemporary guise), human interaction and emotions, our place in the cosmos and the effect on the senses when confronted by the sublime—it is small wonder that opinion is divided. Some loath being manipulated by an art which reaches out empathetically through human gesture and facial expression and which uses highly theatrical tableaux, while others revel in recognising shared experience and engaging on the journeys of inquiry and transcendence that Viola offers through his video works and installations.
The Canberra showing—the largest exposure Australia has had to the work of Viola—reminded me of both his video installation The Passing (1991) and also of The Greeting (1995). The earlier project ambitiously addresses the endlessly repeating cycle of death and regeneration through footage of childbirth and its inevitable sequel (prompted by his mother’s death). The presence of water is an enduring leitmotiv in The Passing while a sound-scape creates an intensely bodily and spiritual cast. With the 1995 work, time is presented not as Newtonian (that is, linear and progressive) but is linked more with psychological time, which has no rules. The film’s extreme slow motion concentrates the viewer’s attention on the interaction between three women, with acute attention given to the subtle shifts of posture, expression and gesture. The other overwhelming characteristic of The Greeting is its concern with representation within western religious painting using sophisticated electronic art media. Both of these earlier works closely anticipated The Passions series and the Angels installation, brought to Australia courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
The Passions comprises a number of plasma screens hung to parallel conventional framed paintings. At the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) they were presented in a sequence of darkened rooms with generous space allowed for each individual work or group to unfold. With this project, Viola has succeeded in bridging the gap between figurative representation of so-called ‘Old Master’ paintings and the scenarios he has constructed with actors conveyed through LCD technology and video rear projection. In this manner, he appeals directly to what Chris Townsend describes as an ‘everyman spectatorship’.1 Early religious pictures were made to appeal with compelling immediacy to the general populace and Viola appropriates their visual didactic power through the tropes of modern image-making. Sometimes he goes too far and slips into theatrical parody which borders on farce. I would place Emergence (2002) in this category, despite the fact that I was seduced by the technical wizardry of this large-scale, ambitious work. Viola based Emergence on Masolino’s Pietà, a fresco of the dead Christ standing in a sarcophagus with mourners on either side. Possibly it was the two women in clothing reminiscent of the hippie era in California or the fake pallor of the figure of Christ emerging in water from his burial chamber that unnervingly reminded me of Hollywood and suspended any sense of belief in the Resurrection.
The works that I continually returned to, because of their forthright yet sensitive tackling of human emotions within a generational context, were situated in a room of portraits. Here, two sets of diptychs titled mysteriously The Locked Garden (2000) and Silent Mountain (2001) belong very much to the realm of psychoanalysis. Spot-lit and superbly choreographed in their movements, the 2001 work shows a young woman and man (their heads and torsos coupled yet separated by individual picture/screens) moving in unison through states of high anxiety to a point of subdued stillness. To the right, the second diptych, supported on a sill representing a mantle piece, supports two smaller, soft toned portraits of a late middle-age couple whose facial expressions convey rare occasions of emotional acknowledgment and accord. For some viewers, perhaps, their message was too obvious?
To these portraits I would add Surrender (2001) a video diptych on two vertically mounted plasma screens which commanded a place further on in the carefully orchestrated layout of The Passions. In a slow cyclical movement from high resolution to distortion and disembodiment, a male and female melt through a water matrix as though reconciling anima and animus then loop back again to states of psychic pain. It is no accident that this particular work leads to the drama of the Angels sequence of five huge screens with apocalyptic sound-scape.
Yet it would be remiss not to end this brief review with one of most exquisitely conceived works in the Bill Viola exhibition. As part of The Passions, Catherine’s Room (2001) is described in the exhibition brochure as a contemporary predella, yet this intimate sequence of images of the ascetic life has the light touch of Zen. While introducing the cycles of the natural world through the seasonal metamorphosis of a simple tree branch at the window and the pattern of light shifting from day to night and its return, a single figure conducts her daily rituals with simplicity and authenticity, free of human suffering.
Bill Viola, Four Hands, 2001. Video polyptych on four LCD flat panels, mounted on a shelf, 22.9 x 129.5 x 20.3cm (overall). Artist's Proof. Collection of the artist. All images © Bill Viola and photography Kira Perov.
Bill Viola, Catherine's Room, 2001. Video polyptych on five wall-mounted LCD flat panels, 38.1 x 246.4 x 5.7cm. Artist's Proof. Collection of the artist. All images © Bill Viola and photography Kira Perov.
Bill Viola, Emergence, 2002. High-definition video rear projection on a wall-mounted screen, 200 x 200cm (projected image). No.1 from an edition of 3. Commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. All images © Bill Viola and photography Kira Perov.
Bill Viola, The Locked Garden, 2000. Video diptych on two freestanding hinged LCD flat panels, 40.6 x 65.4 x 14.0cm. Artist's proof, collection of the artist. All images © Bill Viola and photography Kira Perov.
1. ed. Chris Townsend, The Art of Bill Viola, Thames & Hudson, 2004, p.10.