In my studies to become an art historian I have generally been focusing on art from before 1830: Goya, Blake, Fuseli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, Dürer. Contemporary art can be wonderful and interesting, but it has never been my main focus. So when I stepped down the stairs in The National Gallery of London’s Sainsbury Wing in December 2003 to see an exhibition of video art called The Passions I neither knew what to expect, nor did I expect much.
At the entrance to the exhibition there was a vertical flat screen displaying a meeting between three women in extreme slow motion.
Bill Viola. The Greeting. 1995
Two of the women were conversing quietly for a long time until suddenly and unexpectedly a third woman bursts into the space. Pregnant, radiant, and energetic. She embraces one of the women. And as far as I remember that is more or less it. The reference to the traditional motif of the Visitation – that is, the encounter of the pregnant Virgin with the also pregnant St Elizabeth was obvious (at least for an art student), and The Greeting is directly inspired by Pontormo‘s Visitation. But it is also just a meeting, an encounter between human beings.
This was my first encounter with Bill Viola’s art. I was astonished. One after another his videos unfolded before my eyes and it was like one long unveiling of what feeling is. Many of the pieces were from the Passions series with close-ups on a face or groups of people who expressed some sort of passion: grief, cheerfulness, anger. Always in slow motion. And a slow motion so extreme that for a newcomer it was only dawning slowly that they were actually moving.
Bill Viola, Quintet of the Astonished, 2000
This last point had an impact on me as beholder of art. Let me just for a moment anticipate events and tell you that when I returned to the permanent collections of the National Gallery and saw paintings like this one it was like they were moving too. Only slowly, slowly.
Style of Jan Mostaert, Man of Sorrows, after 1510.
It is one of the few truly and purely spiritual experiences I have had with art. That is, an experience of art completely severed from intellectual enjoyment. And I was baffled to find that Viola’s works could rub off on other pieces of art in such a concrete way, across so many centuries.
The exhibition was very large and included many works I have since had the fortune to re-encounter in other exhibitions. Among them The Crossing which is sort of the quintessence of Viola’s work with water and fire (that are recurring ingredients in many of his videos).
Front and rear views of The Crossing, 1996.
The National Gallery exhibition was my first and completely overwhelming view into Viola’s world. It touched me on a deeply emotional level and affirmed the necessity of art. This was a space of contemplation, of cognition, and of emotion. Why? Because these videos somehow managed to show the nucleus of an emotion, and in the recognition of that emotion you see your own deepest instincts reflected. And that is what art is all about, right? To recognise yourself (also if that may just be on an empathic level – you recognise that you can feel empathy) and your personal history. Or not recognise yourself and wonder at it.
I could show you some bad-quality youtube videos of his pieces, but that would be pointless. This is art that has to be experienced installed and not on a computer screen.
In the next post I will introduce you to Bill Viola’s own thoughts about his art. That will be a treat!