Bill Viola: Three Women

Publication: The Times

Visual Art: Giles Sutherland

Bill Viola: Three Women

St Cuthbert’s 


Until 30 September


It would be difficult to imagine a more apt setting for Bill Viola’s nine-minute video artwork, Three Women, than the interior of St Cuthbert’s. A church (at the northern extremity of the Kingdom of Northumbria) has occupied the site since at least 850AD and was dedicated to Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne.

The kirk resonates atmosphere and unusually for a protestant building, is rich in stained glass and other sophisticated artworks, such as a replica of Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna, on the font.  Inside St Cuthbert’s the serenity is palpable and it’s difficult to remember that it is within a stone’s throw of Edinburgh’s busiest thoroughfare.

Bill Viola has had numerous links with Scotland in the past, including participating, as a recent graduate, in Ricky Demarco’s Edinburgh Arts summer school in 1975. In 2009 a major body of Viola’s work was shown at The Pier Arts Centre in Orkney.

Somehow the label ‘video artist’ seems inadequate when dealing with the intellectual and moral gravitas of Viola’s work. Its roots lie deep in the heart of European Renaissance sculpture and painting – the devotional aspect here is prominent, but not over-whelming.

In common with many of his pieces, Viola has taken a fragment of HD film footage, lasting no more than a few seconds, and slowed this markedly so that the action unfolds over extended time. The notion of time, is central to Viola’s practice, and here he makes this explicit in the ages of the three personae who occupy this film space.

Under his direction, three performers (Anika, Cornelia and Helena Ballent) emerge in succession, by order of age, from behind a thin cascade of water. The figures are immediately transformed from grainy monochrome into resplendent colour. The figures hold and release hands, gesture, and then recede behind the screen of water.

It’s difficult not to be moved by this – the idea of one generation following another, the process of leaving childhood and relinquishing parental responsibilities, are all deeply embedded in the imagery. The work has all the pathos of the mother and child nearby and also references works such as Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces, which is regularly exhibited in Scotland.

Viola’s pieces are often accompanied by sound, which is clearly a highly important aspect of his work. In this case however, the work is silent and because of this, there are clearly more direct links to the way sculpture and painting operate. Viola has said, “Even my pieces which are silent have a kind of sound because you can feel the movement in it and you can understand that as a kind of chord.”

Three Women transcends time and space, and, like all high art, its purpose and intent exhibit a universality of experience that is both profound and deeply moving.

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