Monday, 7 March 2011


                                     BLAINSOUTHERN GALLERY, LONDON 7.3.11
In 1996 Viola was present when a man died suddenly at the Getty Research Institute. Helpless, he went into the museum to find his special painting, Dieric Bout’s The Visitation. His father had died one month earlier and Viola started studying Christ’s Passion and other representations of extreme emotional states in medieval & renaissance art. Simon Morley, writing for Art and Christian Enquiry reckons that Viola is one of handful of contemporary artists who can be truly considered religious’.

The above picture is a still photograph by Kira Perov from Viola's silent video installation now showing at the Blainsouthern gallery, a series of four works showing a group of five individuals close standing together while they experience a wave of intense emotion which threatens to overwhelm them. The white cracks in the image are unintentional – the paper I brought back from the gallery got crushed in my bag and the ink fell away.

The thin plasma screen in a darkened room is on a pedestal, so the picture is as respectfully situated as any Old Master. The video opens, and for a moment there is nothing wrong. Then we notice slow, incremental changes as each is overcome by some strong reaction to what they are seeing. Each person reacts differently. All this at a speed so slow a passerby could be forgiven for thinking it was a still. The video lasts 15 minutes

The green lady clutches her heart and her smooth cardigan crumples. Her hand touches her neck as if to comfort herself. The man at centre back starts by looking rugged and isolated but turns towards the woman in red as if to offer comfort. At her most intense her head is thrown back, her eyes are closed and her hands are crossed as if she can no longer bear the intensity of what is happening. It’s not an unfamiliar pose in religious imagery.  Horror, disbelief and misery pass like shadows over the faces of the group. When it is too much to bear they glance away, but stay rooted to the spot.

The background of the video is dark and formless with no suggestion of the outside world. The incident they are watching is left to our imagination since it could be happening just where we are standing. There isn’t a single clue as to what is going or where. No one walks out of the frame. 

 When, years ago, I saw Viola's video The Visitation  at the Haunch of Venison, featuring  the moment when two pregnant women - Mary the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth her cousin -  embrace as they meet,  it moved me to tears. We are used to slow motion in films or crime reconstruction or sports fixtures. But these pieces bypass rationality. They touch our inner capacity to attend patiently to the nuances of real feelings. And to stay in the here and now, however terrible. It is what some now call mindfulness. 

The paradox is that all this is happening while we know we are watching actors, we know that they are feigning emotion. But Viola’s work is charged with a peculiar energy. We are disturbed, more than spectators. 

Bill Viola, The Passions, John Walsh (ed)

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