Bill Viola: Observance

Video still showing a line of grieving mourners with a woman in black 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

December 18, 2004 - April 17, 2005

Exhibition now finished

The American artist Bill Viola was born in 1951. He is a pioneer and leader in the field of video art, perhaps best known for his large-scale projected room installations. More recently he has made more intimate small-screen artworks, including those shown here. Viola has greatly expanded the potential of his chosen medium, bringing it to wider public attention.

This exhibition celebrated the purchase by Walker Art Gallery of Viola’s major work, ‘Observance’. Two additional pieces, ‘Mater’ and ‘Witness’, loaned from private collections, were included to complement ‘Observance’.

In 1998 Viola was one of several scholars invited to the Getty Research Institute in California to study ‘The Representation of the Passions.’ The participants examined how artists in the past dealt with the challenge of arousing and depicting extremes of emotion through their work. They also considered how contemporary artists could learn from this.

As a result, Viola created a series of new videos, collectively called 'The Passions'. In these, inspired by historical religious paintings, he explores the intensity of the human spirit. His method is to use extreme slow motion concentrated on the faces and body movements of his performers. The three works shown were part of 'The Passions'.

About the artist

Video still showing a line of grieving mourners with a woman in a red dress 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

Bill Viola was born in New York in 1951. He graduated at the College of Visual and Performing Arts, Syracuse University, New York, where he was awarded a further Honorary Doctorate in 1995. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honours. In 1998 Viola was Getty Scholar-in-Residence at the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and Humanities, Los Angeles. In 2000 he was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Based in Los Angeles with his wife Kira Perov (his creative collaborator and the manager of his studio), he is today regarded as one of the leading artists working in the field of video.

A practising artist since 1973, Viola has used video to explore universal human experiences such as birth, death, self-knowledge, the senses and consciousness. During the 1970s, living in Florence, he was technical director in one of the first video art studios in Europe and later travelled widely, drawn by a deepening curiosity about spiritual practices. He settled in Japan to study Buddhism and became artist-in-residence at the Sony Corporation's headquarters.

His work consequently has its roots both in Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions that include Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism. Viola's artworks employ state-of-the-art technologies and are distinguished by the precision and simplicity of their presentation. Alongside his contemporaries like Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman and William Wegman, commencing his career during a period when video as a medium was just developing, he has been instrumental in its establishment as a legitimate artform. In so doing Viola has also helped to expand its reach in terms of content, technology and historical relevance.

Throughout his career Viola has also broadened the scope of his work in collaboration with artists from other fields, including musicians and filmmakers. He has exhibited extensively worldwide, representing the USA at the 1995 Venice Biennale. In 1998 an acclaimed twenty-five year survey of his work at New York's Whitney Museum travelled for two years to six museums in the USA and Europe. His large-scale video installations, notably 'The Messenger' (1996), 'Five Angels for the Millennium' (2001) and 'Going Forth by Day' (2001) are upheld as icons of the video medium. His work is represented in several major public collections worldwide and, in the UK, in the collections of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art and the Tate.

The Passions

Video still showing a line of grieving mourners with a man in a red t-shirt and orange shirt 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 one of a series of artworks collectively called 'The Passions', amongst which it is regarded as the most significant, alongside the larger-scale 'Emergence'. 'The Passions' is a series of video works begun in 2000. Shown in silence and extreme slow motion, the videos explore the power, range and expressions of human emotion. They have developed out of Viola's interest in the devotional painting of the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

To date there are some twenty works in the series. Like 'Observance', most of them are shot on 35mm film at very high speed and in continuous sequence. Viola employs none of the editing or shifts of viewpoint of conventional film-making. The footage is then drastically slowed, transferred to digital video and played on flat screens. This is crucial since it enables the minutest, subtle shifts in expression to be observed. The resulting quality is sharp and photographic rather than electronic.

'The Passions' series was first exhibited at the Getty Institute, Los Angeles, prior to its 2003 showing at London’s National Gallery. A departure from his earlier room installations with large projections and sound, the works in 'The Passions' series are silent and intimate. They are played mainly on small plasma screens in homage to the portable icons and devotional works by which they are inspired.

'Observance' and 'The Passions' are the culmination of a very particular artistic and spiritual journey for Viola. In the late 1980s his work came under the influence of his growing interest in the art of the past. He was particularly fascinated by the 'multiple screen’ images of medieval artworks such as altarpieces, and by the emotional extremes portrayed in the faces of their subjects. The capacity of these paintings to provoke powerful emotions in their contemporary viewers was something that captivated him. Viola’s 'Nantes Triptych' (1992), combining painful images of death and childbirth, was made during the year in which his mother died and his son was born. It was a starting point for his exploration of emotional pain, and of his personal conflicts of sorrow and joy.

Progressing from this, Viola aspired to show people in the throes of emotion. His intentions were profound. He wanted the viewer to linger on his images, and to contemplate what he describes as 'Sorrow with a capital S'. He sought to create a more direct empathy between the audience and his subjects. To pursue this he revived his earlier study of the old masters and introduced actors as a medium to deliver his themes. His aim was not to restage the paintings that interested him but to 'get inside these embody them, to inhabit them, to feel them breathe.' 'The Greeting' (1995), modelled on Pontormo's 'The Visitation', was his first work to employ the methods of traditional filmmaking, including actors and scenic designers. This was an approach he would return to five years later in 'The Passions', and which is at the fore in 'Observance'.

Viola's strong belief is that art has a function beyond the aesthetic. It is this fundamental purpose that he seeks to reclaim in his re-workings of historic, devotional masterpieces. He began work on 'The Passions' when his own father was dying five years ago: in a Chicago gallery he saw Dieric Bouts' weeping Madonna, 'Mater Dolorosa'. The painting moved him to tears – a surprising reaction to a piece of 15th century Dutch devotional art. He describes his response:

"For the first time in my life I realised I was using a piece of art rather than just appreciating it. Maybe it should have been in a church - where people share silent communion - but it happened in an art gallery. That is not what I was taught in art school...I was looking at paintings of the crucifixion and watching my father slowly slide."

In 1998, with several other scholars, Viola took part in a year of studies at the Getty devoted to the representation of 'The Passions'. The participants examined how artists in the past dealt with the challenge of arousing and depicting emotional extremes through their work. They also considered how contemporary artists could learn from this. Viola’s own research ranged from texts on Buddhism to the often dramatic visionary experiences shown in Spanish painting.

Increasingly drawn to the Getty's collections, his investigations into specific facial expressions, tears and extreme emotional states make frequent appearances in his notebooks of that time. Whilst there, he was commissioned by the National Gallery, London, to make a piece for its 'Encounters' exhibition. This came to fruition in 2000 with 'The Quintet of the Astonished', inspired by Hieronymous Bosch's 'Christ Mocked', in which Viola directed five actors to show specific emotions - sorrow, pain, anger, fear and rapture - with increasing degrees of intensity. Through further works he explored beyond simple facial expressions. The actors' faces and bodies were used to describe extremes of individual anguish and suffering, employing references to traditional classical and Renaissance poses.


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 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.'


Video still showing a close-up of a woman's face staring back at us

still from ‘Witness’, 2001 video installation, colour video trip on three LCD flat panels mounted on wall. Photo: Kira Perov

‘Witness’ takes the form of a triptych, a three-panelled picture. It resulted from Viola’s earlier, unsuccessful attempt tocreate a response to ‘Christ as Salvator Mundi’, a painting by the 15th century artist Dieric Bouts. He aimed to recreate the intensity of Bouts’ Christ, who fixes his attention directly on the viewer. Viola asked a solo actor to focus with increasing strength on a single emotion, then to release it.

Dissatisfied with the outcome, Viola repeated the process with three women. They too were directed to look at the camera in an unbroken gaze. Like the actors in ‘Mater’, however, Viola asked them to move through the four powerful states of joy, sorrow, anger and fear. They achieve this without making the slightest unnecessary movement. The result combines an emotional force with vulnerability.


Video still showing a close-up of an elderly woman's face

still from ‘Witness’, 2001
video installation, colour video trip on three LCD flat panels mounted on wall
Photo: Kira Perov

Age and the four emotional extremes of joy, sorrow, anger and fear are the focus for ‘Mater’, Two women - one old, one young - respond to and express these emotions. Their reactions, enhanced by the slow-motion playback, are inevitably coloured by their differing life experiences.

The women’s portraits are physically separated by the use of a diptych frame (diptychs are paintings that consist of two parts, commonly hinged together like the pages of a book). Only once do they acknowledge each other’s presence. The word ‘Mater’ is the Latin for ‘mother’. Indeed, the intimate scale and the dual frame perhaps suggest a family portrait.

‘The Ages of Man’ was a popular subject for contemplation in Medieval and Renaissance art. Viola had previously explored the themes of childhood, youth, maturity and old age. ‘Mater’ represents his continuing artistic and spiritual interest in the various stages of human life.

References in the Walker Art Gallery collection

Painting showing Virgin Mary with the body of Jesus Christ

'Pietã' - Ercole de Roberti

The Walker Art Gallery's Medieval and Renaissance art collection is both wide-ranging and exceptional. It offers a relevant historical context for 'Observance'.

Amongst the jewels of the Walker Art Gallery, part of William Roscoe's collection transferred to the gallery in 1893, is Ercole de' Roberti's Pietã of c1495. Symbolic of pity, it uses unidealised figures to project grief and suffering. The subject of the Virgin holding the body of her Son is included in Jacopo da Voragine’s ‘Sermo de Passione’, and represents a solitary act of sacrifice on the part of the Virgin, who offers her son for the redemption of mankind. In the Virgin's pose, head dropped in grief, face fraught with sorrow, the Pietã typifies the type of devotional work that has inspired Viola here. Even the bare, rocky landscape is used to further stress the tragic and emotionally loaded theme, whilst the robe worn by the Virgin is coloured black rather than traditional blue.

The best of Roscoe's Northern European pictures is 'The Lamentation over the Dead Christ' by the Master of the Virgo inter Virgines. The procession across the panel of the figures in this composition is eerily redolent of the imagery in 'Observance'. 

Painting showing the dead body of Jesus Christ with various figures in mourning

Master of the Virgo inter Virgines - 'The Lamentation over the Dead Christ'

Here, Christ’s friends have taken his body down from the cross and brought it to his mother. She sinks to her knees, singular in her grief although supported by St. John and accompanied by two holy women. The scene is one of horror and desolation, expressed through such details as the pale, skull-like faces and the barren landscape.

With its dramatic Caraveggesque lighting, Paulus Bor’s 17th century 'Mary Magdalen' shows the repentant sinner, eyes red with weeping, holding the flask of ointment with which she 'anointed Christ’s feet. The same subject is re-worked in the 19th century in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection by George Frederick Watts.

Also in the 19th century, Benjamin West and Daniel Maclise offer a contrasting perspective on the nature of shared public grief and loss. Their two versions of 'The Death of Nelson', from the early and later 19th century respectively, reflect both the contemporary surge of commemorative works and the continuing need to mourn and celebrate the great national hero. West’s version of the scene is more ‘staged’, with all eyes locked on the subject and his heroic death for his country. Maclise’s version shows a multitude of other characters each locked in their own personal dramas, the monumentality of what is happening still to hit them.

In Louis Fournier’s 'The Funeral of Shelley', 1889, the poet’s closest friends, including Byron, grieve the tangible loss of a person embodying their collective Romantic spirit, the brooding sense of sorrow and desolation emphasised by the grey, cold weather. The Pre-Raphaelites were also keen to evoke the internal passions of loss, especially in relation to lost love: 'Dante's Dream' by Rossetti is perhaps the Walker Art Gallery's pinnacle of achievement in this respect. Every inch of its symbolism, gestures, and its rich, gothic colours seize the overwhelming upsurge of Dante's emotions as he dreams of Beatrice's death. Meanwhile, the work of Albert Moore and his contemporaries represents the notion of 'Art for Art's Sake' to which Viola’s exploration of the potential function of art is in true counterpoint.

Removed from their original context, framed and hung on walls, most of these works of art are far removed from their created purpose. Viola's return to the literal use of a work of art to reach out to the emotional state of the viewer brings a fascinating, contemporary perspective to these historic holdings. It demonstrates the timelessness and universality of such expressions of emotion, whatever their medium might be, and point towards the original raison d’etre of these devotional objects.


Observance was purchased for Walker Art Gallery’s collection in 2004 with the assistance of the National Art Collections Fund

This exhibition has been organised with the assistance of Haunch of Venison and the Bill Viola Studio. We also thank the private collectors who have generously lent to this exhibition.