Bill Viola’s work is mesmerising; both in terms of its content and its unique aesthetic. At The Wilson Gallery in Cheltenham, three works from Viola’s The Passions series are showcased in a small darkened room, their glowing presence evoking an eerie yet oddly calming sensation made incongruous by the busy shops and noisy streets outside.
Moving clockwise through the gallery, viewers are met by five screens, each presenting the same woman in a variety of activities. Catherine’s Room is a modern take on Andrea di Bartolo’s St Catherine of Siena Praying and the painterly quality of the scenes could be interpreted as a nod to the Italian artist’s fourteenth century predella. The woman, acting out her tasks in silence, adds a degree of transfixion to the piece that is both soothing and intriguing whilst the tasks themselves echo a familiarity that transcends time.
Surrender, unlike Catherine’s Room, is a piece that sparks discomfort in the viewer. Two screens, placed vertically on top of each other, are filled by two figures – a man and a woman. At any given point, one of the figures is upside down, but it is not this in itself that the viewer finds distressing; it is the couple’s expressions – pained and fearful – that prompt an emotional response, one that perhaps makes us flinch or recoil. Slowly the couple dip as if to greet each other and their heads become submerged in the watery band that separates them. It is then, as the water is disturbed and the figures begin to sway and distort, that we realise that we are in fact looking at the couple’s reflections. In the rippled water, the figures become increasingly abstract until eventually all we see is broken colour.
After Surrender, Four Hands comes as a welcome relief. In slow motion, the hands of a son, mother, father and grandmother perform various gestures, their fingers and palms moving in assured, well-practiced movements. These actions lock their performers in a separate world, one where they are connected by more than just blood, but by shared experience.
If you’ve never experienced video art before or are sceptical of the form, Viola’s work is not only a great place to start, but an important step in understanding a medium that continues to develop and challenge itself in original and exciting ways.
- Bill Viola’s work has been brought to Cheltenham as part of ARTIST ROOMS On Tour and will be exhibited at The Wilson until 7th February. Admission is free.
- For more information, follow @TheWilsonChelt or @ARTISTROOMS on Twitter.