Project 17
Bill
Viola

Project Summary

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.

 


Bill Viola


Fire Woman

Tristan's Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall)

9 April – 30 May, 2008
St Saviour's Church, Redfern, Sydney

 


 


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VideoBack to top

Bill Viola: Design Boom Interview

Bill ViolaBack to top

Bill Viola has been experimenting with video art since the early 1970s, and has been instrumental in its development as a major contemporary artform. Viola’s unique style and imagery, expressed through his extraordinary range of works, 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. In exploring universal elements of spiritual themes, his works often echo medieval and Renaissance paintings, seeming at once contemporary and timeless, meditations on the human experience.

Education KitBack to top

This Education Kit discusses the practice of Bill Viola, renowned as one of the pioneers of video art.

LEARNING STAGES: Senior secondary (Stages 5-6) | Tertiary

CONTENTS: Introduction | Artist bio | Project outline | World events 2008 | Theme: video art | Art Gallery of NSW Collection connections | Selected references | Issues for discussion

Project SupportersBack to top