I started my Viola viewing at the Art Gallery of South Australia then walked on to St Peter’s Cathedral, then on Queen’s Theatre. The Adelaide Festival’s Artistic Director David Sefton explains in the free program for this exhibition that this is a broad view of Bill Viola’s work. I imagine the video art is spread over these three venues to give it room to resonate; it is large in size and scope.
I found the combination of sitting quietly viewing different artworks and then moving on to the next site provided a good opportunity to reflect on what I had seen and to stay with the feelings each work gave me. Chronologically it meant I was seeing the oldest and most recent of his work on show in the first venue, so I could have chosen to call it a day at right there; I could have, if the work had not been so compelling.
The Art Gallery of South Australia is a safe place to start this journey. Large screens show human figures contending with the elements of our existence, air, fire, water, earth. As the pieces play through from start to finish the controlled environment becomes a space of transformation, initiation into the aesthetic of Viola perhaps, but certainly for my part, transformative in the sense that I empathise with these human subjects. Other people around me in the dark agreed; we didn’t think about how the artist created these amazing views that render us mortal on the threshold between security and insecurity as observers.
I stopped thinking all together and allowed the metaphysical images to draw me into a meditation. If I had the money and the space I think I would probably install one of these pieces at home and just sit and watch it for hours and hours on end.
We are imaginative but fragile creatures on so many levels and these days thanks to Computer Generated Images (CGI) everything imagined can be integrated into a blockbuster movie; we are used to seeing the impossible happen every day.
These works draw us along on journeys we have all taken… birth, emerging into life through the water of our mother; death, reinvention as two sides of the same screen must be circled to appreciate the synchronicity and flourish of life. I found it very profound, sacred and very beautiful.
The walk to St Peter’s Cathedral from the Art Gallery of South Australia was charged by a sense of enduring humanity after watching these first works. Even though I am not particularly religious I found the destination alluring because it is such an icon. An icon I see often but rarely think about. After seeing flames and water temper human forms, and a man floating towards the surface of a deep pool, the structure of the Cathedral seemed to be exposed as a genuine attempt by humanity to take a stand against the elements.
Inside the Cathedral rather than notice a lot of religious stuff my eye was immediately drawn to the flames on the candles, the play of the light through the stained glass windows. Inside the small prayer room where the exhibit is housed felt small and dour. The imposition of hierarchy pressed down from all angles and Viola’s Three Women touched me in many ways. One of the plays I wrote in the 1990s was about three women and concerned midwives being oppressed by the burgeoning church state; so I felt very drawn to this work. It spoke of mortality, as does all his work. Art is, in the eye of the beholder, whatever it makes you feel. Bill Viola’s art made me feel very quiet and peaceful; thankful.
I tend to have my spiritual experiences in art galleries more often than I do in any other place of worship, and I haven’t set foot in St Peter’s Cathedral since I went to a cousin’s wedding there forty years ago; hasn’t changed much but now it will linger in my mind as the place where I saw Three Women, the work that I’m very glad I did see because it offered so many resonances.
Exiting the Cathedral into the warm sunny afternoon was a shock because by now Viola’s symbolism had really focussed my mind. Walking beside Adelaide Oval and comparing these two iconic structures pondering what they generally mean to people gave me a new sense of awe. I don’t often feel a sense of awe walking around Adelaide. Familiarity breeds disinterest if not contempt. My focus shifted to the waterfall on the footbridge and the sprays of fluid floating around.
The richness of the colours in Viola’s work is intense; outside in the sunshine, walking back towards the Festival Centre I noticed how similar colours stood out in the landscape now.
The oldest standing theatre in Adelaide, Queen’s Theatre was my final destination. Dark, musty, cavernous; everything that had felt safe and serene about the last venues was turned on its head. The modern finish of Viola’s work contrasts starkly with this venue. The smell of dirt and hot galvanized iron permeated the air and added just the right atmosphere to the massive wall of fire on the screen.
It is very likely that some people will not be moved by these works; they may look and see a big television with not much going on. Some folk may be hankering to change channels and check on the cricket scores or catch a news break. I could not help but be moved.
Everything of Bill Viola in this exhibition is open to interpretation. The narratives he creates are like a fusion of Noh Theatre and dreams; the slow pace, the impossible situations. The floating bodies, the flowing waters all speak to our experience of life and being alive against all odds in a mysterious universe.
The work has great universality; it takes classic icons of myth and story and populates them with people that seem contemporary. Crossing thresholds, ascension, the river of time, the rejuvenating destruction of fire, the implausible solidity of the ground we walk on, all of these things come into play and yet none of it seems too repetitious, too slow, too gaudy or too smart for its own good.
I have seen photographs of the work before and I have read a little about the artist, but now that I have seen the work, sat in the same room or walked around it in the dark I feel it has given me something new: It has given me a perspective and a connecting tissue between three points of my city, it has made me reconsider the reasons why people build the buildings we do, why we are compelled to gather together and either worship or endure as a species. I wasn’t expecting that.
I think we are very lucky to have the opportunity to look at this work. The exhibitions are all free and accessible so while they are in town I highly recommend you go and take a look. I spent the best part of a Saturday afternoon wandering between each venue and watching each of the short works on display, but even a cursory look in during a lunch break is likely to impress.
Most of the individual works require about fifteen minutes viewing time. The longest, The Messenger requires thirty minutes of your time. If you relax and allow the artwork to simply play out in front of you I am pretty sure you will find it a memorable experience.