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The Arc of Passions
Bill Viola’s New Works

Yvette Bíró

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1. Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995) p. 79

2. Ibid p. 78

  ‘When a question is posed ceremoniously, the universe responds.’ (1) Bill Viola’s more than three decades of work compellingly demonstrates this credo, this stark, concentrated and fervent wish to create an ‘intensity (that) burns through your retina and onto the surface of your mind ... elevating the commonplace to higher levels of awareness.’ (2) Steeped in Oriental philosophy, Viola speaks to us inspired by Zen, Taoism and Buddhism with an awesome and utter simplicity.  



Among the artists transgressing the borders of traditional image-making, Viola is the most outstanding philosopher-poet. His earlier, now famous video installations, such as The Messenger (1996) and The Crossing (1996), rightly earned him the name of the video-haiku-master. His unusual economy of time and the density of unadorned actions lifted these works in their visual immediacy to the level of transparent, rich metaphors. The centre of Viola’s quest has always been the meaning of time in human life, questioning the organic connection between nature and physical existence, birth and death, beginning and ending. In Viola’s vision, passing time is only an eternal motion, a cycle of rebirth and evanescence. Time is the materia prima – since thought is but the function of time, an unfolding process, the development of the vital moment. And awareness of time leads us into the world of continuousness, into the series of moving images that unravel the dynamics of human consciousness.

The Crossing literally illustrates the cosmic adventure where man follows his destiny through fire and water, simultaneously harnessing and resisting their power, up until his last breath. We follow two parallel stories: from the depth of two huge projection screens a human figure approaches us at a hauntingly slow pace. The slow motion emphasises the drama of the apparently trivial stride. Then the figure comes to a standstill and looms over us, enlarged to twice the average human scale. On one side water drops on the figure from high above, gradually turning into a torrent until he is completely submerged. On the other side the human figure is simultaneously surrounded by leaping flames rising into a firebrand, throwing sparks that will also engulf him. Then suddenly the storm abates and all the ‘passions’ are extinguished. The space goes dark. Nothing but silence and void. And the whole cycle starts over again with an eerie languor.

The metaphor is at once simple and profound. Crossing over fire and water: could any human endeavour be more mundane or any desire more direct? In its most physical immediacy, the exercise refers to the metaphysical core of the effort. The paradoxical time frame of the installation is also an effective summary of a comprehensive idea. In a few fleeting minutes the entire destiny of man unfolds before our eyes: birth, the encounter with the elements, the experience of their total power over us and final demise, and then … then some incomprehensible ‘but’ beyond. Continuity, the indisputable fact of intransigence, comes to life. The law of ‘eternal return’. The absolute purity of the event reduced to the bare minimum is awe-inspiring. Birth, maturity and arrival are slow, while the end comes with blinding speed. And yet, this jarring rhythm hides unexpected harmony. For the cyclical recurrence lends the phenomenon a specific accent.

Besides the distinctive length of duration, the visual effect is equally gripping. The relationship between man and the elements is not burdened by solemn comments. We are witnessing an encounter, not a combat. Man is not small and frail, as demonstrated in so many shallow presentations, and the elements are also more than simply destructive brutal forces of nature. The two exist in tandem, facing each other, or rather intertwined, to fill their allotted time. For in The Crossing it is not only the human figure that disappears, but also the fire that goes out and the water that recedes. Their existence is not eternal either. Increase and eventual decline are their natural lot as well. Viola’s treatment avoids evaluative antinomies. Instead of stressing the opposition of good and evil, he presents their equivalence, identical beauty and mysterious order.

The Messenger works with similar themes. In this brief parable running for only a few minutes, a naked man slowly emerges from a body of swirling, churning water. When he finally reaches the surface, he opens his eyes and takes a deep breath. The accompanying sound strengthens his breathing to something close to a suffocating howling. Then he sinks back into the depths to start the whole process over again, until he is breathless. The unity of man and elements – the relationship suggests both mortality and rebirth in nature, emphasising the continuous order of existence. Man must simultaneously experience the desire to action and his finite nature, the cyclical law of the process that transcends the singular.



3. Ibid p. 78

  The use of slow motion and sudden shifts of pace are integral to Viola’s working method. Cosmological order knows no temporal symmetry. ‘Reality is not logical, our perception of it is not logical either, our conception of it is. Reality is open ended, our mental set imposes structure, order, connections.’ (3)  


4. Ibid p. 79

  In the artist’s interpretation the process and human destiny are truly passages, a fundamental natural phenomenon not unlike the existence of inert matter. In the relatively long duration of densely packed time we must experience the significance of things on our skin, with our eyes, ears. ‘With time perception becomes equal to thought’. (4) And impression turns into deeper understanding.  


  However, in the last few years Viola has gone further in the creative interpretation of time. Already the much admired ‘deconstruction’ piece, The Greeting (1995) (which I first saw in an exhibition called so tellingly Being and Time) displayed this new tendency. It was a scene enacted upon a sixteenth century renaissance painting by Pontorno, and projected life-size on the wall in such slow motion that the original video sequence which lasted fifty-four seconds was extended to ten minutes. The painting itself illustrates the encounter of two women and the ecstatic communication of some secret as they greet each other (supposedly the joy of motherhood). However, the transposition of the original religious mystery into a modern context doesn’t eliminate the enigmatic character of a psychological state.  


5. John Walsh ed., Bill Viola: The Passions (J Paul Getty Museum: Los Angeles, 2003) p.30

  ‘I really wanted to deal with the essence of the nature of the social situation ... Two women are talking, and they’re interrupted by a third, and you see the social dynamic shift. You see discomfort and awkwardness ... It is the invisible world of all the details of people’s personal lives – their desires, conflicts, motivations – that is hidden from our view and creates the intricate and seemingly infinite web of shifting relations that meets the eye.’ (5)  



The key words here are doubtlessly the ‘shifting relations’, the passionate investigation of the almost unfathomable changes that define our actions and reactions. And the way Viola has chosen or invented to detect them is slow motion. Since the extension of time could only happen with the excessive speeding up of the shot: three-hundred frames per second instead of the customary twenty-four frames per second, the projection caused an exceptional experience of dreamlike movements, gestures, minute details of emotional expressions. Because he does not cut the film, the continuity of endless modifications is factually demonstrated.

Not surprisingly the impact of these captivating experiments called for further exploration. A new series of projects was started, taking advantage of Viola’s temporary residence in the Getty Museum where he could dedicate himself to the examination of the Old Masters’ work, and in his personal research into the representation of the Passion. Viola begun to work on The Passions in 2000 and so far about two dozen works have been realised.

In The Passions we see image compositions, diptychs, triptychs and quintets, running over fifteen, twenty and eighty minutes, stretched in extreme slow motion, radiating a haunting ambience.

As the faces come to ‘life’ (in The Passions we are dealing with regular portraits) we are forced by their proximity and the detail revealed to follow a series of changes – emotional, physiognomic, psychological transformations. The slightest twitch in the face, the throbbing vein and gaze are all there in front of us in a form never perceived before, and they call for questions and comprehension. Precisely because the shifts are barely perceptible, we have to get used to the micro-dimensions of the minute changes and our attention becomes incredibly astute and demanding.

The enterprise opened new territories for Viola, because in these video-installations he had to work with actors, set-designers and camera-people just like in a ‘normal’ film. Furthermore, his use of slow motion was extremely complex as was the technical process needed to squeeze into a single minute the one uncut shot and still maintain its uninterrupted continuity.


6. Ibid p. 36


7. Ibid p. 36

  The ambition of The Passions project has been the most detailed recording of the ever changing and most nuanced transformations of the emotions. Indeed, he talks about the ‘arc of intensity’ (6) as he tries to follow the four primary emotions displayed in the performance of his actors: joy, sorrow, anger and fear. ‘When they (the performers) are moving, you get temporary configurations – constellations – and peak moments of alignments that unravel as new ones start forming. I’m interested in what the old masters didn’t paint (my emphasis), those steps in between.’ (7) By capturing these steps in between Viola consciously strives to arrive at unchartered territory.  



In the course of his experimentation Viola excitedly employs the latest novelties of video-technology. This time he doesn’t resort to the projection process but uses the digital, flat panel surface that can be moved and exhibited in galleries. He started to produce small video portraits, familiar to us from the laptop screen. Then, when he discovered the complex simplicity of the liquid-crystal display he became almost ecstatic. For in the place of the cathode-ray tube, the major characteristic of television, he could rely on the values of the most sophisticated photography, enjoying the interplay of shaping both background and lighting, bringing to life a vivid and rich texture.

At first he depicted portraits influenced by old altarpieces of the Middle Ages, then later he created more ordinary, domestic images, reminders of family-photographs framed and hung on the wall. The smaller dimensions were to emphasise the importance of the personal emotional connections. As in the past, when people carried in their prayer-books images of religious or secular saints, feeling comforted by their physical closeness, so today, through the widespread use of laptops and digital cameras, we are provided with a similar opportunity: to evoke anywhere, anytime the cherished images of memories or loved ones. Consequently, in this kind of intimate encounter, the spectator, too, has the chance to experience a particular ‘personal’ dialogue.

Though Viola’s new video installations make use of silent film’s two most powerful inventions (the close-up and slow motion) the essence of his innovation resides in the double excessiveness of these methods. Space and time are equally magnified, intensified. The space, i.e. the mimicry of the human face, is dissected, articulated in its utmost scale, and the motion is revealed in its most extreme slowness, when dynamics arrive at the border of the impression of a static state.

Certainly, the new technology was an enormous gift, yet, for Viola the most important benefit was a new experience of time. In this investigation of time which can be felt more than merely visualised, he truly moves beyond direct spectacle. The fluidity of the emotions progresses almost as a narrative, unravelling the time-forms of the individual lives in their ceaseless transformations. We distinguish these transitions or passages; the picture becomes a mini-event, dramatic for its own sake

However, we may question to what extent these emotions are authentic, how ‘real’ their unfolding can be. Whether joy, sorrow, anger and fear, as followed in The Passions, express true human experiences, or are they rather the representations of a theatrical performance?

In other words: are we seeing real human suffering, or more or less convincing actors, who, under the influence of the director, are posing themselves in different states of mind before the camera? Indeed, in what sort of experience do we participate? In the fluctuation of pain, enthusiasm, fear caused by life events, or in an artificial show, ordered and displayed with infinite precision?

Certainly, the fact that Viola deliberately discards the drama, the scaffolding structure of the story, and chooses instead the form of a startling inventory, leaves open the potential for many interpretations. The impact can only be substantially ambiguous. If we refer to the latest neurological discoveries and their recognition of the deep interrelationship (and distinction) existing between emotions and feelings, we may discover much that will assist in the evaluation of these moving video-pictures.


8. Antonio Dimasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain (Harcourt, Inc: New York and San Diego, 2003) p. 28
  ‘Emotions play out in the theater of the body. Feelings play out in the theatre of the mind,’ says Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza, suggesting that ‘emotions and the host of related reactions that underlie them are part of the basic mechanisms of life regulation; feelings also contribute to life regulation, but at a higher level.’ (8)  



What is bewildering in Viola’s undertaking lies precisely in the grey zone he has created by placing his actors in this field of ‘betweenness’. Divesting the people of any true, immediate sensation, letting them face a merely imagined situation of grief and relief, the result cannot be other than a kind of abstraction: generic, hovering somewhere above palpable emotions and (maybe?) deeper feelings. Tears are, of course, tears, shivering is shivering, a smile accompanied with gentle sound will evoke the familiar impressions we are used to, yet, without the immediate motivations that elicited them, our response remains merely intellectual. We acknowledge our admiration of the perfection of this strange collection, or catalogue, as one of Viola’s admirers called it, but may be more puzzled than touched.

Are we witnessing in these moving images the well known Diderot paradox of acting: i.e. the fact that good actors always perform characters relying on their creative imagination and stored personal experiences, applying them on the emotional requirement of the drama, and would never try to imitate Hamlet or Juliet. They can only succeed if both resources are in place, bringing to life the blend of memory traces and the true sensations of a real life situation. In Viola’s pieces we are not affected by any ‘second’ factor, and therefore the body language, the gestures seem to be more artificial. The ‘arc of intensity’ is not always strong enough, as if the precision and scientific elaboration of an experiment is being demonstrated. We may feel more respect and less wonder.

Going Forth By Day (2002) is a video/sound-installation in five parts, presented in a large completely dark room at the Guggenheim Museum. It could best be described as a cinematic fresco. This time they do have an obviously (parabolistic) narrative, though far from any traditional format. Different stations of life are projected on four walls and one over a door-passage. They are symbolic life-cycles, lasting precisely 35 minutes, unfolding in a parallel way but having no direct relationship to each other. Once more, as in The Greeting, the inspiration comes from paintings by an old master, this time Giottto’s fourteenth century fresco in Padua and Signorelli’s fifteenth century fresco cycle in the Orvieto Cathedral. Once again, the project involves an exploration through the endless extension of real time, since as soon as the sequence is finished the process starts all over again. Always in a different moment in time, each panel is treated in a different style, with different levels of abstraction.

The first panel, Fire Birth, follows the orange-red swirling of the Creation, without a clearly visible human shape, as it gradually comes to life after the fire of destruction. Thus birth is only rebirth in Viola’s interpretation and the formal loop emphasises this philosophical vision.

The second, The Path, is a metaphor, a walk through the woods, the animation of a seemingly aimless stroll, in which each figure is travelling at his own pace and individual rhythm. Ordinary people keep walking, short and tall, young and old, dressed casually, together or alone, moving always from the left to the right. We never see the beginning or the end of the forest path, a 4-5 metre long section of the road. What matters is the movement and the homogeneity of the passing figures. All details are natural in their accuracy: the trees, the light, the normal passing of people filing by. The video lifts the pure, physical event of ‘the course of life’, or the Journey (with a capital J) to the level of the symbolic.

The next panel is the most action-filled. The Deluge stages an urban environment with a stone building at the centre. People are coming and going, busy with their daily activities: some move out of, others move into the house, they greet each other, some are rushing, others move more quietly, until suddenly an unexpected deluge interrupts normal life, they have to run to safety, catastrophe interrupts the flow of daily existence.

The Voyage follows, depicting the simple, practical, quiet preparations for death. We observe from a distance the events, occurring in a solitary house on a hillside, where somebody is about the die. Two other persons, including presumably his wife, wait outside; a boat approaches to be loaded with the belongings of the departed and all at once the old man reappears to join his companion in order to board the boat and they start off across the water to the other side but we are not given the chance to see its features or the moment of arrival. After the silent fade out the cycle recommences.

Finally, First Light finishes the series. It is dawn, a tired group of rescuers start gathering together to leave. There has been a flood which has inundated the valley. A lonely woman gazes into the distance, as if waiting to catch sight of her missing son by some miracle, when all of a sudden a bright white figure emerges from the water and rises above the surroundings. Vision? Dream? Hallucination? Once again, we’ll never know and the symbolic tale starts anew.

The entire installation runs for ninety minutes and one may follow any of the stories as ones patience or curiosity allows.

These pieces do not develop a coherent narrative in the classical sense of the word where either the characters or the method of presentation display some signs of unity. The panels bring to the fore realistic, unstylised human figures, lifted from every day life. The well-defined locations and their spatial compositions follow on from each other without any interior connections among them. Yet, needless to say in the course of ninety minutes simple events are raised to mystical heights. As we try to absorb the significance of a walk through the forest, a waterfall in a city street, or the empty silence of an abandoned house we cannot resist the eerie sense of a kind of magic. We look beyond the pervasive monotony of the seemingly mundane events in order to focus on tiny or sudden rhythmic changes. We have to feel to what extent the panels speak about a specific meaning of time, aleatory time, according to which the flow, while it appears to be steady, is interrupted by unforeseeable turbulence, consequently the correlation between the two different time-forms and their mutual dependencies becomes sensuously effective. And yet it is often inevitable that one will fail to perceive the occasional gaps in intensity among the panels, and the disruptive mannerism of some symbols.

In Viola’s work dealing with time is the primordial feature. The consistent employment of slow motion serves to remind the viewer at every turn of the invisible, of the neglected detail which remains unrecognised. In other words, he attempts to lead the spectator to enjoy a virtually spiritual presence. He looks for ways to move the threshold of perception. We are forced to watch and anticipate something that lies hidden just behind and below the immediately palpable. As in Passions and also in Going Forth By Day – another quotation from an ancient text, the Egyptian Book of the Dead – Viola seeks to set forth the path of the soul, from darkness towards the light, dwelling on the cyclical nature of time, in which birth and death, beginning and ending alternate and mutually embody the passage of time.


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© Yvette Bíró and Rouge 2005. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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