Bill Viola, a critical essay


Bill Viola has been described by critics as developing an environment that totally immerses the viewer in both sound and image. On Artthrob, Candice Breitz describes Bill Viola's The Greeting as "it prompts you to think about the relationship between photography and painting . . . you start to feel a collapse of the border between painting and photography." This is an amazing compliment for any critic to give to an artist. Viola achieved the feeling of a painting by letting you be able to stand in front of the work and feel what he was trying to portray. John Haber says, "Bill Viola makes illusions but does not believe in them. He depends on a lens, the lens of his video camera, but he wants to startle the viewer out of illusion. He wants to bring art back to a more primal humanity." Again he is described as working in a way many film makers and artist have lost. Bill Viola allows the audience to get in touch with emotions and make a soulful connection they may have been disconnected with. This leaves you with an internal and personal dialogue that can transform.

The first video viewed was Migration, Viola's 1976 film. He begins the film with sound which seemed to be a common theme in all of the film viewed. There was a sound of faint church bells with the vision of a distorted image. As the bells got louder the image became clearer. You are left with an image of a man, which is Bill Viola sitting at a table. The head fades and is out of the shot. You are left with his body behind a bowl, cereal box and oranges. The shot begins to close in but not in a normal zoom fashion. It is as if it is a migration. You see the movement of the zoom with a double image which blends into one after a moment. Then you see his face again. This time it is in the reflection of the bowl. There is again the same migration effect done to the image of almost a small faucet which has drops of water dripping into the bowl. Many steps are taken to zoom into this. At the end you again see the reflection of Viola in the drop of water. It is interesting how he uses the repetition of his image each time in water. His face is also decreasing in size each time you see it. First it is his actual face, then in the bowl and finally in water drops. It is almost as if with migration he feels that his reflection is not worth that large of a space.

Bill Viola's The Reflecting Pool created from 1977 to 1979 is largely concerned with water. The camera angle of this film never moves. The camera is positioned in the same place for the entirety of the piece. In the beginning of the film you see a square pool which has the color and feel of an impressionist painting. You hear the sound of outside, both airplanes and running water. From the woods you slowly see a man appear and he stands by the edge of the pool. The viewer is captivated with him standing there staring at the pool. Then there is a freeze frame of the man doing a cannon ball into the pool. There is movement of water as if something had dropped but the image is still lingering above the pool. A reflection of a person walking is able to be made out in the water. There is no person walking to be causing that reflection though. Then you see the frozen image over the water disappear. Now there are two reflections walking. Again there is no figure to cause such a reflection. There are ripples of water in the pool and then the single image reflection appears again. Then the person that was in the cannon ball freeze frame swims to the edge of the pool and get out, walking back into the woods.

The Reflecting Pool seems to be a full circle. Starting from the woods and ending in the woods. Is this an analogy for life--starting at one point and ending at another with many strange things occurring in between? Sometimes there is no explanation for incidents, just like the reflections and you don't necessarily need to see the splash to believe that when you jump you eventually are going to land. The person getting out of the pool was a way of answering whether or not he was in that pool. This film made you think about the process of human thought. How everything doesn't need to physically be shown to know they are there.

During Viola's time in Japan he created Ancient of Days (1979-81). This film begins with the sound of cars and an image of fire. You view the fire and when it is extinguished a man nails something to the table which was in the fire. This section seems to be displayed backwards from the original firing. After the nailing a cup, clock and teapot appear. The shot then switches to a monument. Now the sounds of wind entertain your ears. Much time is spent viewing the monument. As in The Reflecting Pool, the shot is at the same viewpoint the whole time. You are left viewing different skies, background of pastel purple, pink and blue. White clouds increase as the film advances. As it progresses you see different groups of figures walking around to the monument in the distance. Then the shot goes to night and you are left with the view of a city and cars driving. Defiantly a unique angle atop of a building and moving till you are viewing it upside down. There is a great contrast of light sky and dark buildings. Then you are taken out of the city back to the country with a snow covered mountain and a kid squatting playing in a bush. There is a sound of something and the kid runs away. The color changes over the whole screen. That view of the mountain is now placed on the side of a building on a television in the city. The image changes to windsurfing. The shot moves into the crowd with the sound of someone singing. This all slows down, then stops and goes to a room inside with the view of a clock ticking, a picture on the wall and flowers. You hear people talking, someone sneezes and then the picture disappear and the shot fades.

There is an interesting bond between the beginning and then end of this film. The beginning shot has a clock which appears again in the ending. This seems to have a huge correlation with the title being Ancient of Days. Viola connects both the physical and mental landscapes allowing you to spark feeling you may not always be connected to. There is a feeling of losing the simpler things the way he goes from the lush landscapes to the obscure angle of the fast paced city. Also the way this film ending in a house where the frame goes black really brings the point back home.

Viola's 1976 film The Space Between Teeth was the last film viewed. It again begins with this use of running water and then the man sits in the chair. The guy screams and then sits back to a relaxed position. This is repeated as the shot is slowly moved down a long hallway. He still screams with a repeated break in between. After he screams you can still hear the echo as if it is trapped in the hallway. With the camera shooting the view at the end of the hall way you can see in the distance the man still sitting in the chair. On the left side of the hallway the windows cast light that looks like gaps in between teeth. There is a black shadow cased from the walls which look like teeth. I find that interesting and would like to find out if that is where the name came from. For a good portion of the rest of the film the camera zooms back into the guy's mouth each time he screams then zooms back out. Each time the zoom doesn't go as far back until you are close to the starting point in which there is shots of the kitchen. It zooms in slowly to a bowl of cereal and a radio is playing in the background. There is then a man at the sink washing dishes but he puts the dish back into the full sink. Then there is a photo in a lake of water, a wave crashes and helicopter end the film. This film is mostly in black and white and portrays the view of memories he has. The film again ends with water but this time crashing into a picture that disappears.

Bill Viola uses the repetition of images through out his films. He uses the idea of water as an important part of his pieces. They help to portray a strong feeling that Viola has and gives the viewer something that you are able to relate to. He lets you be able to have both an internal and external view of his works. The water seems to drown the idea that he is trying to portray and almost give closer to the viewer. He has an unbelievable creativity which he is able to let the viewer see through his works.

--Jessica Boch, 2006

Bill Viola