Online guide

Learn more about the artworks in the exhibition

‘Into the light’ is Bill Viola's first large-scale museum exhibition in Norway. It presents twelve video works including six projection pieces, five flat panel pieces, and one monitor piece, in addition to a rich videotape programme shown in the museum's auditorium. Here you can learn more about the artworks in the exhibition and watch video excerpts.

The Reflecting Pool (1977-9) is projected on a translucent screen hanging in the middle of the room, showing the image from both sides. We see a pool surrounded by trees. The far edge of the pool is at approximately the middle of the pictorial field. In this way, the surrounding landscape is reflected in the water’s surface. Sounds from a buzzing motor, trickling water, crickets and birds disrupt the otherwise still and silent image. A man (the artist himself) is seen walking towards the pool. He stands on the water’s edge and faces the viewer. He yells as he takes a great leap, but his movement freezes before he hits the water. While the image of him suspended in mid-air gradually fades and eventually disappears, a different action plays out in the reflective water.

This work uses several artistic strategies that have become characteristic for Bill Viola’s oeuvre: the use of reflections, images that gradually fade, the manipulation of time and a static camera position. The fixed camera angle makes it possible to layer still images and recordings on top of each other (so-called keying) in order to unify different aspects of time in one and the same picture. But this work also shows how Bill Viola uses technical means to explore spiritual and transcendental themes.

Videotape, colour, mono sound. Projected image size 213,5x160 cm. 7:00 minutes. Performer: Bill Viola. © Bill Viola Studio

Reverse Television – Portraits of Viewers, (Compilation Tape), 1983-4 consists of 44 video portraits that he subsequently edited together and turned into a 15-minute video work. The portraits show people sitting alone in their living room. They look into the camera as if they are watching TV. They are presented in full figure, and the horizontal format shows part of the room in which they sit. The soundtrack includes their breathing as well as sounds from outside the house. The video portraits were shown during the day as 30-second inserts between the various programmes on live broadcast television. The idea was to disrupt the continuous stream of broadcasts and to compel viewers to reflect over their own situation in front of the TV screen.

Videotape, colour, stereo sound; 15:00 minutes. Produced in association with WGBH New Television Workshop, Boston. © Bill Viola Studio

The video/sound installation The Veiling (1995) consists of nine transparent textile veils that hang from the ceiling and are spaced about half a metre from each other. Two projectors are mounted on opposite sides of the room and show, respectively, a man and a woman walking towards and away from the camera. They are represented in different nocturnal landscapes as they move between dark and lit areas. The projections ‘wander’ through the veils and meet at the central veil. This central image is the largest but also the most indistinct.

Video/sound installation. Scrim size: 2.4 x 3.3 m each. 30:00 minutes. Performers: Lora Stone, Gary Murphy. © Bill Viola Studio

The Greeting (1995) is a 10-minute video installation in extreme slow motion. The work is vertical in format. It consists of a 45-second recording in high-quality 35 mm film (300 images per second in contrast to the cinematic film’s standard of 24 images per second) that extends over ten minutes. This slow-motion strategy has been like a signature for Viola, the result being that we as viewers have more time to study a picture and to dwell on the action, details, human bodies and facial expressions. We read the video work almost as a painting – at the same time as the moveable image allows gestures and glances to be visible and to make us aware of changes in light and atmospheric conditions. The Greeting draws on a traditional theme in Renaissance and Mannerist religious art: the Bible story of the pregnant Virgin Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth, who will soon give birth to John the Baptist. Viola’s work is inspired by the painting La Visitazione (c. 1528–29) by the Italian Mannerist Jacopo da Pontormo (1494–1557).

Video/sound installation. Projected image size: 2.8 x 2.4 m. 10:22 minutes. Performers: Angela Black, Suzanne Peters, Bonnie Snyder. © Bill Viola Studio

Four Hands (2001) is a part of The Passions series. The works in this series are themed on human emotions such as they are manifested through facial expressions and gestures. Four Hands draws attention to the vocabulary of the hands. Four screens stand on a shelf attached to a wall. The black-and-white videos show four pairs of hands from three different generations. The images are recorded with an infrared camera designed for low light conditions. This results in greater contrast between light and shade and makes the hands seem sculptural. The hands move slowly and form a series of predetermined gestures drawn from different sources, such as Buddhistic mudras and the English publication Chirologia by John Bulwer (1644). The silent video work Four Hands conjures a meditative mood that directs our attention to the meaning of nonverbal language.

Black-and-white video polyptych on four LCD flat panels mounted on shelf. 22.9 x 129.5 x 20.3 cm. Continuously running. Performers: Blake Viola, Kira Perov, Bill Viola, Lois Stark. © Bill Viola Studio

Catherine’s Room (2001) consists of five videos shown on separate screens mounted in a row on the wall. They might remind one of shadow boxes that show the same room and figure seen in different tableaux. The rooms are sparsely furnished, have empty walls and a small window. A woman does yoga, sews, works at a writing desk, lights candles on what appears to be an altar, and goes to bed at night. The light and the tree outside the window change in relation to the time of day and the season. Catherine’s Room is based on the idea of a predella, a horizontal panel painting mounted on the lower edge of an altarpiece, specifically influenced by one from the late Middle Ages by Andrea di Bartolo (1389–1429). The activities that are carried out also lead our thoughts to Eastern philosophy, for instance Buddhism’s teaching about finding meaning through abstaining from social contact and through mindfulness.

Colour video polyptych on five flat panel displays mounted on wall. 38 x 246 x 5.7 cm. 18:39 minutes. Performer: Weba Garretson. © Bill Viola Studio

Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) and Fire Woman (both 2005) were produced in connection with a new stage production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde in 2005, directed by Peter Sellars and under the musical direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. The works deal with a single person’s encounter with powerful natural elements such as fire and cascading masses of water. They are projected onto a large vertical screen and are accompanied by a four-channel soundtrack played with surround technology and a strong bass. Sound technology and the archetypical soundscapes create an all-encompassing feeling in the gallery and amplify our bodily experience of the works.

In Fire Woman, we see the silhouette of a person standing before a wall of flames. She moves towards us, lifts both arms to the side and falls into a pool of water. We see the splash and are enveloped by the deafening sound. The flames die out and are replaced by the pool’s bluish surface. Here as well, different aspects of time merge together. While the sound of burning flames and the fire in front of us suggest the experience of real time, the woman in the film moves in slow motion. The image is also manipulated by mirroring and turning the recording upside-down.

In the ten-minute-long Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), the action unfolds in reverse and in slow motion. Its structure puts us in mind of classic theatre. The steadily increasing and powerful masses of water cause the drama in the image to heighten. This builds on the concept of the sublime – an aesthetic experience that is frightening but also somehow pleasurable. The sound of cascading water is acoustically spatial, as if we stand in a cave or against a rock cliff.

Video/sound installation. Colour high-definition video projection; four channels of sound with subwoofer (4.1). Projected image size: 5.8 x 3.25 m. 11:12 minutes. Performer: Robin Bonaccorsi. © Bill Viola Studio

Video/sound installation. Colour high-definition video projection; four channels of sound with subwoofer (4.1). Projected image size: 5.8 x 3.25 m. 11:12 minutes. Performer: John Hay. © Bill Viola Studio

The transition between different states of being is a recurring theme in Bill Viola’s art. The silent video-diptych The Innocents (2007) shows two young people who walk through an initially invisible wall of cascading water and come out into the light. The images are black-and-white until the figures penetrate the barrier and become bodies of flesh and blood. The water hits their shoulders and creates the effect of them having angel wings. They are brightly lit from the side. The contrasts between light and shadow recall the chiaroscuro in Renaissance paintings. The youths look around themselves inquiringly before turning away from us and walking back into and through the water. In an endless cycle, they move between these different states of being. Being part of the Transfiguration series, the work shows a physical transformation as the subjects move from one state to another. But we can also sense an inner transformation taking place, in the moment when they realize that their material existence is finite and that they must return through the water.

Colour high-definition video diptych on two flat panel displays mounted vertically on wall. 91.4 x 111.8 x 10.2 cm. 6:49 minutes. Performers: Anika Ballent, Andrei Viola. © Bill Viola Studio

While several of the works in the exhibition are recorded indoors in a controlled environment, landscapes and natural phenomena are also important in Viola’s art. During his many travels, he has sought out landscapes with different characters and has been especially interested in natural phenomena that create optical illusions. Part of the Mirage series, the work Ancestors (2012) was recorded at El Mirage Dry Lakebed in the Mojave Desert of California. On a vertical screen, two people are shown walking towards us, side by side in a desert landscape. The heat radiating from the ground creates shimmering images on the horizon. After walking about half the distance towards us, a sandstorm blows past and almost obliterates them from view. After the storm subsides and the dust settles, we can once again see the man and woman walking at the same tempo. This is a work themed on a physical and mental journey, one filled with trials and tribulations in the form of nature’s forces, but which also suggests solidarity between individuals.

Colour high-definition video on flat panel display mounted vertically on wall. 155.5 x 92.5 x 12.7 cm. 21:41 minutes. Performers: Kwesi Dei, Sharon Ferguson. © Bill Viola Studio

A silent and meticulous inspection of the human body is the starting point for the diptych Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity (2013). This is a two-channel video installation projected on separate granite slabs that lean against the wall. Two naked elderly people walk slowly into the picture. They stop directly in front of the viewer and begin systematically examining their own bodies with flashlights. Their gazes seem to suggest that they are looking into a mirror. They end the process with their head, face and mouth. They throw a searchlight onto their own bodies to find answers. Towards the end of the video the pictures gradually turn black-and-white, become transparent, flicker like an old black-and-white TV and dissolve into the granite. The nude human body is a conventional visual subject in Western art history. But it is the idealised body, the archetype, that has dominated art up until Romanticism. Viola’s work shows us two aging yet still beautiful and functional bodies. The signs of aging bring the dimension of time into the work and enable us to read it as a memento mori – a reminder of the transience of life. A condition of inquiry or self-examination, a search for a continuation – an eternity or immortality.

Video installation. Colour high-definition video diptych projected on large vertical slabs of black granite leaning on wall. 227 x 128 x 5 cm each. 18:54 minutes. Performers: Luis Accinelli, Penelope Safranek. © Bill Viola Studio

The most recent work in the exhibition puts a series of ordinary actions into a cyclical system. Chapel of Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures (2013) shows nine tableaux on separate screens. The tableaux are simple and stylized. The situations that unfold seem meaningless but are performed in a way that gives them a ritual character. The videos are looped so there is no beginning or end; the actions are repeated over and over. A cacophony of sounds is sent straight out into the room; the sound of water being poured, of gravel being shovelled and a hand hitting a face with force. In the film in the centre, a glass bowl is filled with water, but a crack causes the water to seep out slowly. The man pulling a cart up a green slope leads our thoughts to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who was eternally condemned by the gods to roll up the slope of a mountain an enormous boulder which, each time it nearly reached the summit, rolled down again. He knows what kind of meaningless work he is forced to do for all eternity.

Video/sound installation. Nine channels of colour high-definition video on a 3 x 3 grid of flat panel displays; nine channels mono sound. 183 x 306 x 9 cm. Continuously running. Performers: Tomas Arceo, John Brunold, Cathy Chang, John Fleck, Joanne Lindquist, Tim Ottman, Kira Perov, Valerie Spencer, Ivan Villa, Bill Viola, Blake Viola. © Bill Viola Studio

Text: Helga Nyman