Observance, Bill Viola

Video still showing a line of grieving mourners with a woman in a green blouse at the front

still from ‘Observance’, 2002
video installation, colour high-definition video on plasma display mounted on wall
Photo: Kira Perov
Accession No: WAG 2004.24

'Observance' is part of the third series of 'The Passions', made for the exhibition in Los Angeles, London and Munich. This series is perhaps more complex than the previous two yet uses the story-less, ultra-slow movement of the earlier 'Passions' suites. 'Observance' is based upon Albrecht Dürer's pair of altar wings, 'Four Apostles', 1526 (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich.) The painting is a spiritual evocation of shared grief. In a more literal interpretation, Viola first imagined 'Observance' as two upright screens in which his actors would 'shimmer', that is, move towards the camera showing an intensity of expression, sometimes overlapping, their heads coming in and out of view. Eighteen performers spanning all ages and types were drawn from several days' auditions at which Viola read a poem by Rumi, a Sufi mystic:

The human shape is a ghost made of distraction and pain,
Sometimes pure light, sometimes cruel,
Trying wildly to open,
This image held tightly within itself.

Having arranged the actors in a narrow row he asked them to step forward to look at, 'something they'd rather not see...to say goodbye to someone who'd left them.' This procession of grief persuaded Viola to abandon the two-screen format. He created instead a single screen with a composition of even greater depth. In the compressed view of a long lens, narrowly confined by the boundaries of the screen, this presented a richer picture of continuous movement and change. Across eight takes, each of one hundred seconds, Viola encouraged the actors to stay within the frame.

Whilst the relationships between certain of the performers were directed by Viola, the spiritual level to which their relationships reach transcends his formal structure. Their unique, individual evocations of grief take on an undirected response to one another. As each person moves to the front they pause, overcome with emotion. They look downwards, out of the frame. Sometimes a figure glances out at the viewer, as if to seek a shared response, others are more solitary. Some touch or exchange glances, offering physical or emotional support. There is no jostling, but they appear to be driven by an urgent desire to be at the front. That the figures are trapped in this cycle of grief serves to make the experience all the more heart-rending.

'Observance' is unique amongst Viola’s works for having a 'subject' for which the performers grieve, though we are not permitted to see what it is. It is, however, overtly clear that death and loss are the unseen cause. The orderly crowd, and the shared nature of their mourning, create a solemn public event that in the context of contemporary world events is lent added poignancy. Commentators on Viola's work have written of ‘our underdeveloped culture of mourning’ and our need for ‘a grief that makes us more human’.

The altarpiece-like scale of 'Observance' sets it somewhere between his large-scale projected installations and the much smaller, devotional works of the earlier 'Passions'. It has a visual language that exemplifies the artist's work. The performers’ expressions and gestures change so gradually that we observe nuances that would barely be noticed in real time or real life. The clothes worn by the actors are overtly contemporary. The saturated tints of their clothing honour Dürer’s radiant colour scheme and the Apostles’ traditional garments.

The flowing rhythms created by the ultra-slow movement and recessional composition of the queue embody the sense of the uncontrollable emotional wave that Viola holds as characterising the human condition. He has endeavoured to examine and portray this through 'The Passions':

'It is about people being overwhelmed by forces that are greater than them.'

'I became fascinated by the passage of an emotional wave through a person, watching what the Greeks called the numa, the breath of the life force as it courses through us and all things.'

'Our bodies are poised at a unique point between the physical and the metaphysical, between the spiritual and the material. That peak point before something explodes is what I'm most interested in.'