Bill Viola is a leading contemporary artist and pioneer of video art. Since the 1970s, his work has evolved into slow-motion meditations, often referring to art of the past, especially medieval and Renaissance paintings. Fire and water are two of his most consistent images. Many of Viola’s elaborately staged ‘performances’ suggest spiritual or religious ceremonies, notions of rebirth and transformation. His use of slow motion often emphasises this otherworldliness.
Passage into night shows a female figure in the harsh light and heat of the midday sun. The extreme conditions distort and disturb the air, causing her to undulate and flutter. She begins as an apparition within a mirage, a tiny form in the barren landscape. Gradually her person becomes apparent and eventually her dark robes completely fill the screen, obscuring the natural landscape and transforming the image into a pattern of subtly shifting dark blues and, finally, black. Although her features are revealed, the woman’s identity remains a mystery. The silence adds to the sense of mystery.
Passage into night was completed for The Tristan project—a 2005 collaboration between Viola, director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to restage Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde—and subsequently exhibited as part of Love/Death: the Tristan project. The video also resonates with some of Viola’s earlier works. Chott el-Djerid (A portrait in light and heat) 1979, also in the Gallery’s collection, uses similar atmospheric conditions. In the more-recent dual-channel installation The crossing 1996 a walking male figure is consumed by fire on one projection and, opposite, under a deluge of water.
Curator, International Painting and Sculpture
in artonview, issue 68, summer 2011