Bill Viola

November 1996

BILL VIOLA The Passing, 54’, 1991, USA.

The Author:

Bill Viola, Long Beach, California, 1951, creates complex, psychologically analytical video installations, often based on past and present cultures and their relationships with the earth. The artist has travelled through the north of Africa, the south Pacific, and diverse locations in the American Southwest, in search of subjects which emphasize the relationship between humanity and the earth. Combining video monitors and projections on to the walls, he uses landscape imagery to explore various levels of reality, especially the psychological territory situated between daily life and the world of dreams and myth. He has had one man shows in diverse institutions, among them The Museum of Modern Art of New York New York, 1987), The Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston (Texas, 1988), the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, en Jouy-en-Josas (France, 1990) and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia of Madrid (1993). Since 1977, the work of Viola has been regularly included in the Bienal of the Whitney Museum of Art of New York and the Dokumenta of Kassel (Germany).

Notes for a work:

"I would say that time is the fundamental basis, the basic material of my work I will have succeeded if a person leaves with an image, a thought, a discovery, or a feeling s/he can use in his/her life, even if s/he can´t remember my name. Things have fallen behind a lot in the world of contemporary art. These are the essentials about art, and the critical, analytical practices which dominate our lives as art professionals are secondary. When people ask me what my works mean, they kill the possibility that they could mean something else all of these ideas and areas that have interested me, philosophical, religious, spiritual, on the human condition, are coming together, and now, especially after experiences like the death of my mother or the birth of my son, the materials I use (video cameras, projections, speakers, etc.) just become another way of talking about these things, and the discussion itself becomes more important than the nature of the materials". Declarations of Bill Viola taken from a conversation with Alexandre Pühringer and Otto Neumaier in late 1992, published for the first time in issue 1 of MEDUSA, Art & Artists Today, Noema Press, Winter 1994/5. Translation published in the magazine Lápiz, no.113, June 1995, pp.58-65.

THE PASSING (1991) begins with an image of a night sky which gives way to an expanse of water where a covered human figure fights to stay afloat. Will he save himself?, It seems so: a suicidal leap toward the water is inverted and the leaper goes back toward the sky. But then the artist appears beneath the water, as if he has drowned, or perhaps as an identification with the baby in the maternal womb, or maybe he is with his mother?. The tape ostensibly deals with the birth of a child and the mother´s death, two events which coincide during a brief period in the artist´s life. However, the real content and the mystery of The Passing are the emergence from water and the sinking into the water. The family events do not constitute the essence of the tape, but simply offer occasions, however complex, for the image of drowning, which is a recurrent motif in practically all of Viola´s works. Donald Kuspit, “Bill Viola. The Passing”, Artforum, Vol.XXXII, no.1, September 1993, p.145.

Till that moment, I thought that the raw material of the video era was technology, and later I realized that this was false, or was a half truth. The other part of the truth was the system of human perception. I began to realize that I needed to know not only how the camera functioned, but also how the gaze, the car functioned, what the brain did to process the information.” Lucinda Furlong, “Bill Viola”, Visions of America: Landscape as Metaphor in the Late Twentieth Century, Denver Art Museum; Columbus Museum of Art, 1994, p.180.

A video like The Passing, through the contrast between natural and urban landscapes crossed by bodies making mechanical moveemnts, expresses the idea of the reduction of a natural responsibility in favor of an artificially divided time. Given this submission to extrinsic rhythms, our human condition is affirmed by the perception that, in every day-to-day familiar moment, the posibility exists of initiating a rite of transition toward other ways of setting out on the road to self knowledge and personal self-creation. Celia Montolfo, “The unspoken language of the body.”, Bill Viola, Salzburg, Salzburger Kunstverein, 1994, p.184.

The Passing (1991), a synthesis of a period in the work of Bill Viola: a meditation on the states of consciousness in which dreams and reality are indiscernible, while what persists in the mind is an interstitial zone where confusion reigns, not only over what is seen, but also in the record of external data. Vision states and states of mind are one and the same thing, Viola shows. Stuart Morgan, “Bill Viola”, Rites of passage: Art for the end of the Century. London, Tate Gallery, 1995, p.132.

  • The Passing