Bill Viola b. 1951, New York
Two-channel color video installation, with four channels of sound; 10 min., 57 sec.; performer: Phil Esposito
16 feet x 27 feet 6 inches x 57 feet (4.9 x 8.4 x 17.4 m) overall
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Gift, The Bohen Foundation, 2000
Bill Viola. Photo: David Heald © SRGF
Underlying Bill Viola's video work of the past two decades is the conviction that advanced media technologies have the capacity to channel direct experience of spiritual phenomena. In his immersive video and sound environments, Viola aims to externalize the internal realm of the unconscious, providing space for the contemplation of what he sees as the universal, mystical truths that ground many Eastern and Western religious traditions. To do so, he uses modern methods of media production such as large-scale projection, slow motion, precise sound editing, or looping. Archetypal cycles and perceived dualities, such as creation and destruction, represent his core subject matter.
Initially installed in England's Durham Cathedral, The Messenger reveals some of Viola's central thematic concerns and formal techniques. Projected on a large scale and played on a continuous loop, the video pictures a watery zone within which a naked man slowly materializes. Upon surfacing, he takes a rejuvenating breath only to descend again, his form dissolving into the dark water. Implied here are the universal cycles of birth and death as well as the basic act of speech itself. The elemental force of water is made more explicit in the two-channel work The Crossing, which revolves around a freestanding, double-sided projection screen. On one side, a man walks in slow motion out of the blackness to eventually confront the viewer at over life-size. Dripping water from above gradually becomes a torrent, overwhelming the figure, whose form is eradicated. The scene replays after the water dissipates. On the reverse side, the same man approaches, this time to be consumed by rising flames. Part violent destruction, part peaceful transcendence, The Crossing is indicative of Viola's use of nonspecific spiritual processes drawn from a host of disparate belief systems.