Bill Viola - Being Time

July 2009

Publication: The Times


Since he began working with the then new medium of video in the early 1970s, Bill Viola has pursued a vision which combines meditative scrutiny and spiritual depth. While it is no longer surprising that a ‘new’ technology is capable of supporting and extending such an approach, it is important to understand that Viola’s work is part of an art historical continuum which extends back as far as the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His visual images are highly allusory, accessing the devotional imagery and iconography of the past.


Here four works from 2000-2001 have been brought together under the auspices of the ARTIST ROOMS project - which brought the collection of Anthony d’Offay into public ownership - and the artist’s own collection and highlights some of the major themes and concerns in Viola’s oeuvre. All the pieces are presented in darkened rooms as wall-mounted LCD panels or, in the case of the large-scale work, ‘Ascension’, as a projected image. 


Each of these is an intensely wrought, carefully choreographed work with great care given to lighting, perspective, attire, context and most importantly – as the title of the show implies - to the idea of time as a defining element.  Shot using high-speed 35mm film, the moving images have been slowed so that nuanced detail (facial expressions, gestures, changes in light and mood) can be conveyed, and scrutinised.


In the diptych, ‘Silent Mountain’, two figures react to a perceived emotional trauma; the contortions of face and body, in extremis, recall the imagery of the Passion, and one assumes, additionally, that the works have been informed by personal experience.


‘Catherine’s Room’, a polyptych of five panels, shows the life of an individual as a series of elevated, ritualised actions. Thus exercise, work, reading, the lighting of candles and preparation for sleep assume a new significance. Because each of the five films is presented simultaneously the eye moves constantly between them; but this becomes an involving process rather than a distracting one as each of the series

becomes part of and relates to the other. It’s the antithesis of current televisual idiom. In these exquisitely paced works, Viola holds the viewer’s attention by balancing brevity and boredom.


In ‘Ascension’, a clothed figure plunges into a darkened tank of water. Shafts of light illuminate the body with outstretched arms as bubbles and slowed sound create a visual and aural symphony. As the figure floats to the surface and then slowly descends out of camera shot, this metaphor for life and death assumes great clarity.


Viola is clearly a master of his art and the clarity of his work should never be confused with simplicity; he tackles the big issues head-on with campassion and empathy, illuminating aspects of the human condition many lesser artists avoid.