Bill Viola has a reputation as one of the pioneers of video art. Not only has he been making work since the 1970s, but he is one of the few who have managed to cross over into the mainstream imaginary, whilst still being respected by the art world. Thus, any exhibition by the artist is received a major event and the show at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the most comprehensive in the UK for the last ten years, is no exception.
For this show Viola has transformed the Underground Gallery at the Sculpture Park into a dark labyrinth, and visitors are advised to spend some time getting adjusted to the darkness before moving on. Once inside, the exhibition is laid out as a one-directional journey of transfiguration - from adolescence to old age and, ultimately, death. From clarity to obscurity, from colour to black & white and back again, the audience is gently guided through each step of life’s spiritual and physical transformations and encouraged to pause. There’s no rushing in Viola’s work.
For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Viola is much closer to the Romantics than to contemporary art, both in his use of symbolism and the relevance of nature within. The videos on show, whether new or old, are overloaded with meaning - each element looking to unravel his romantic take on the big issues of life. One of the first works in the exhibition is ‘The Trial’, his newest work. A young man and woman stand unaware of each other as a downpour of five viscous and unpleasant looking substances rains on them. The camera records in fine detail their surprised and times anguished expressions as they go through what Viola describes as “the five stages of awakening”. By contrast, at the end of the exhibition is ‘Dreamers’, a slow and meditative piece that has an uncanny familiarity with Romantic and pre-Raphaelite painters. Men and women lie placidly underwater in a scene reminiscent of John Everett Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ or Paul Delaroche’s ‘The Young Martyr’.
A booklet giving Viola’s detailed interpretation of each work accompanies the exhibition. However, the work is easy to access and causes such individual reactions, precisely because it deals with human experience, the universal and the elemental subject of human existence. Each visitor will inevitably bring their own baggage and life experience, making the booklet an unnecessary over-interpretation and potentially even obscuring the visitor’s personal experience.
The repetition of theme and strategy means that some of the later works in the exhibition loose their ability surprise. So it is refreshing to see his final work in the Chapel, a renovated 18th-century building a five-minute walk away from the underground gallery. ‘The Ascension of Tristan’ is an arresting, monumental piece that articulates what Viola has been working through for years - change is a painful process.
Whilst many artists are concerned with detail, the mundane and the everyday, Viola is not afraid to deal in grandeur: birth, ageing and death, agony, redemption, purification and ecstasy. Surprisingly in an age of special effects, with Viola’s work what you see in the film was genuinely actioned. Of course, he edits and manipulates the footage, but when we see a man falling slowly through tones of water, it really did happen. His work is a big budget production and he often works with Hollywood studios, which adds another layer of filmic grandiosity to his work. It also makes it solipsistic and hyperbolic. Viola doesn’t do subtle.