Bill Viola’s Observance

(Following a visit on Thursday 6 July 2006)

The Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield, situated at the top of the building of the city’s central public library, is perhaps typical of such municipal facilities. There is nothing on the walls of tremendous merit, but nonetheless, the gilt-edged frames and hard wood fixture and fittings give a hint of grandeur otherwise lacking in the commercial spaces beyond.


I went the wrong way as I entered and so traversed the entire gallery collection before finally coming across what I wanted to see. In the final room, on the deep-red walls, there were five ‘popular’ works by 16th Century Old Masters such as Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and Luis Morales, taken from the Sheffield City Collections. However, the real focal point of the room, like a star pulling all around it by the force of gravity, was a single plasma screen. Unusually for a TV screen perhaps it was set on the wall vertically, which gave it a rather pleasing image. Playing on this screen was the work of one of the world’s most renowned and respected contemporary film and video artists, Bill Viola. Some years ago R.V. had given me a VHS copy of Hatsu-Yume, but I had not given it much notice, not least because I found it difficult to know how, or in what mood to watch it. This then was my first proper chance to experience Viola’s work.


The work showing at Graves Art Gallery was taken from Bill Viola’s Passions series, Observance (2002). In the Passions series, Viola investigates how the Old Masters depicted emotional extremes in their art. His video work in turn seeks to elicit a powerful emotional response from the viewer. Observance, for example, is based on two panel paintings entitled Four Apostles by Albrecht Durer and concerns itself with the depiction of an intense and shared grief. Viola asked the cast of actors he assembled to step towards “something they’d rather not see, to say goodbye to someone who’d left them”. As they approach the unseen moment before them, each register individual expressions of grief, bewilderment, shock and disbelief. All of which is played in slow-motion, making for a rather revealing study of gestures, emotion and community. You find yourself watching, for example, not just the faces, but the hands – with each person lightly caressing the next in line, as if to comfort and yet equally to negotiate their movement to the front of the line. In its intensity of mood, resonance of colour and tone and orchestration of the ‘players’ in Viola’s drama pay tribute to the compositions of the Old Masters. (See: Bill Viola – The Passions, ed. John Walsh, Getty Publications, 2003).

I am a little bit late on this one (Bill Viola’s installation of Five Angels for the Millennium at Anthony d’Offay Gallery in 2001 is said to have attracted some 40,000 visitors in just a couple of months). However, I am beginning to understand something of the enormous appetite for his work, and perhaps even I can begin to find a time/place/mood to watch Hatsu-Yume (in fact I had it on in my office a few days before visiting the exhibit in Sheffield. This distracted viewing maybe about right). In one of the books strewn upon a small table in the exhibition (presumably to give you something to do whilst watching the screen!), I came across an observation: what is intriguing, the author suggested, ‘is the extent to which Viola’s work both resists and … doesn’t necessarily need, the kind of explanation that art institutions feel obliged to provide’. Far from suggesting Viola’s work as simplistic in any way, we can understand the works to ‘connect with their audience in ways that are as much visceral or emotional as they are intellectual […] Viola’s art, if it is anything, is an art of affect’ (Chris Townsend, The Art of Bill Viola, Thames & Hudson, 2004, p.8).

A number of responses in the visitor’s book perhaps bear out this observation rather well:

‘Viola makes me believe that video art has a purpose. I usually turn around and walk out when I see the flicker of a screen (this from a contemporary artist too .. not one of those Daily Mail readers) … The sensibility of this and the Tom Hanks [also showing at the Graves Art Gallery] made me both worry and celebrate the human race’ (Dave Chessie)

‘Viola absolutely appalling as ever. He should learn to paint. Second rate Mel Gibson stuff. No wonder he is so reviled by early collaborators … Forester et al. at Caltech and Buffalo. Expensive kit, full-on investment – Ugh!’ (Adam Sylvester)

‘What’s the plasma about?’ (Ellie)

‘One interpretation or explanation does not necessarily exclude or preclude another. There are layers of meaning to these things which we would prefer not to see’ (Christine Smith)


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