Project 17 - Bill Viola

Bill Viola has developed a unique body of work since his first experiments with film and video in the early 1970s and is celebrated today as one of the world’s leading video artists. For Project 17, two works from Viola’s 2005 series The Tristan Project were presented nightly at St Saviour’s Church in Redfern, Sydney, in April and May 2008. The darkened church was lit with a larger-than-life projection of Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), mesmerising images of catharsis and ascension accompanied by resonating sound.

Over almost four decades, Viola has developed a unique symbolism expressed through an extraordinary range of works. He has been instrumental in the development of video as a major artform and has defined a new language for the moving image, using its fluid, ephemeral nature as a means to explore life and death, the reach and limitations of perception and cognition. Exploring the universal elements of spiritual themes, his works often echo medieval and Renaissance painting, sometimes wavering between figurative scenes and flickering shadows and abstractions. Dreamlike, they seem at once contemporary and timeless, meditations on the human experience.

Viola’s installation at St Saviour’s Church screened Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension, while a third work, The Fall into Paradise, was shown at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. All of the works were originally created for a Los Angeles Philharmonic presentation of Wagner’s 19th-century opera Tristan and Isolde in collaboration with director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen. The works shown in Sydney were created for the opera’s final act, in which the two lovers are united in death. Viola drew their inspiration from elemental transformations described in the Tibetan book of the dead. Fire Woman depicts ‘an image seen in the mind’s eye of a dying man’, while Tristan’s Ascension portrays ‘the ascent of the soul in the space after death’.

The display at St Saviour’s retained the dramatic quality of the original presentations. Shown at night on a 6 x 3 metre screen, beneath a soaring arched ceiling, alongside stained-glass windows and brick columns and accompanied by a multi-channel soundtrack (of fire in one work and water in the other), it created a breathtaking ambience. In the night-time setting of St Saviour’s, these arresting images and sounds created a trance-like meditative state, an experience of contemplation and discovery shared by art-world visitors, locals and passers-by alike.