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Bill Viola’s Selected Works puts us in the hands of a gentle master

A major exhibition of American video artist Bill Viola’s work is on display at the Adelaide Festival. Bill Viola, The Encounter, 2012. Color High-Definition video on plasma display mounted on wall. Performers: Genevieve Anderson, Joan Chodorow. Photo: Kira Perov. Adelaide Festival

American video artist Bill Viola has an extraordinary relationship with time, space and the elements. His moving images of archetypal figures are transfigured by their experiences of land, air, fire and water.

As part of the 2015 Adelaide Festival of Arts a selection of Viola’s work is on display that confirms his status as a master of the video medium and demonstrates why he is considered one of today’s most significant contemporary artists. On display until March 29, Bill Viola: Selected Works is the broadest collection of the artist’s installations to be shown in Australia.

Liminal moments

The themes carried through these epic works involve transfiguration, fluidity and obliteration, liminal encounters across the borders of existence. We are reminded of destruction and creation, the elemental forces of nature shaping landscapes and moving entire continents.

This ensemble of works is housed in three venues across the city. The Art Gallery of South Australia presents four works, including The Crossing (1996).

Bill Viola, The Crossing, 1996. Video/sound installation. Performer: Phil Esposito. Photo: Kira Perov. Adelaide Festival

On each side of a free standing screen a male figure walks toward the viewer until he reaches the edge of the screen, the boundary between our world and the other. On one side, a single drop of water plummets and explodes on impact with the man’s scalp.

He remains impervious while the drop becomes a torrent obliterating his form, splashes lit like fireworks filling the frame. Simultaneously, on the other side of the screen, flames leap and encircle the human form, engulfing and consuming him until he too is obliterated.

Deeper water

Bill Viola, The Messenger, 1996. Video/sound installation. Performer: Chad Walker. Photo: Kira Perov. Adelaide Festival

Viola almost drowned as a child, an experience that has informed much of his work. He first picked up a video camera with artistic intent while still at school in 1969. Since then he has been exploring his childhood encounter with the divine and the realisation that there was much more to life than what was on the surface.

The Messenger (1996) begins as a reflection of light on water, slowly flowing to become a naked male form suspended in space.

He floats towards the surface, light dancing over his body as details coming into focus, until finally like a whale he breeches into our world of colour and air, his deafening mammalian breath filling the space as his eyes take in his surroundings.

The water refuses to give him more than a moment on the surface and he descends again into darkness.

Desert encounters

This play of light on surfaces, mystic influences and apparitions are seen again in two pieces from the 2012 Mirage series.

Set against desert landscapes and indistinct horizons, Walking on the Edge presents two men on the opposite sides of the screen walking out of a shimmering heat haze. They pace a steady cadence, slowing time until they draw close, an older and a younger man intersecting momentarily, meaningfully, before separating again.

They bring to mind another festival installation, Inside Australia (2003) by Antony Gormley, part of the 2003 Perth International Arts Festival. Gormley’s figures are also subject to the landscape, impervious creatures of the elements.

Viola grants his figures flesh, purpose and movement, yet they are similarly defined by their stoicism and their distance from each other.

The Encounter (main image) is more cyclical and intimate, featuring two women walking parallel across the desert toward the viewer. An older and a younger woman meet, their gait, forms and colouring similar enough to establish a familial bond. They stop and turn to face each other.

The elder woman passes something to the younger, a sacred gift in the wilderness, before they turn and retrace the path of the other, heading toward their destination/point of origin. The cycle, we assume, repeats ad infinitum.

A sacred feminine space

Bill Viola, Three Women, 2008. Color High-Definition video on plasma display mounted on wall. Performers: Anika, Cornelia, Helena Ballent. Photo: Kira Perov. Adelaide Festival

Three Women (2008) is located in St Peter’s Cathedral in North Adelaide, sitting so comfortably within the reverent intimacy of the Lady Chapel that it could have been created for the site, as Viola’s The Martyrs (2014) was created for London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.

The screen is filled by static interference, the black and white pixels creating a fog of interference similar to the scratches and haze of ill-preserved silent motion pictures. From this electric mist, three females emerge, an elder woman and two daughters.

They too walk slowly and deliberately toward the viewer until they pass through an invisible screen of water. They cross the boundary in order of age and experience, like a rite of passage, reborn in glistening technicolour.

Like The Messenger, the women seem unperturbed but slightly alienated by their new surroundings, observing and slowly turning to re-merge with the darkness. Their movements are considered and deliberate.

Viola’s figures are lit and coloured with a classical Renaissance ecclesiastical palette – the mother in blue, the virginal daughters in white. Think of the gentle strength, grace and intimacy of Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks (1483-1486) or the ageless balletic gestures of Virgin and Child with St Anne (1503-1519).

The Son rises

The third and possibly most cataclysmic installation is in Queens Theatre. Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) and Fire Woman (both 2005) were originally created for a production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

Both videos depict mythic figures consumed by fire and water, slowed to draw out the most minute droplet and gesture, testing patience and extending the empathy bridging audience and spectacle. Like all the works, there is much room for personal interpretation.

As absorbing as these spectacles are, the only distraction comes from wondering how it was all achieved, how so much can be seen, felt and heard so simply and directly within a relatively short space of time. The immediacy of Viola’s work belies his technical mastery of the medium.

We are indeed in the capable hands of a gentle master.

Bill Viola: Selected Works is on display at venues across Adelaide until March 29. Details here.

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