Of Life and Death

If ever proof is needed that the arts covers the heart, as well as the mind, then Bill Viola may well be the artist to provide it. Dealing mainly with video installations, his works, concentrating on “the human form traversing the gap between heaven and eart, suspended between light and darkness, time and eternity, life and death.”

These concepts are on display at his exhibition, entitled 'Transfigurations'. Initially, it brought to mind the Harry Potter movies, in which the transfiguration spell allows a person to change into another being, like an animal. While this may appear comical to begin with, the same concept works here. The human body, indeed, the human life, is a constantly dynamic process, always in the act of changing from one form to the other. Physically, our bodies changes its shape and size, as we grow older and bigger. We also move closer, day by day, to the other end of the spectrum of life; from the day that we are born, our ultimate end is the end of life itself.

We see this, then, being described in various ways. In 'Transfiguration', 'Three Woman' and 'Acceptance', the video shows various people (mainly woman) in grainy, black-and-white compositions. They move closer and further away from us, crossing the divide between light and dark. At times, the human form disappears completely into the darkness, suggesting overtones of life's end. However, this is where the most interesting thing occurs: in seeing the darkness, I find myself trying to impose on the composition a form I am seeing in my own mind. By concentrating harder, I can't help but extricate small bits of clarity in the darkness. The graininess also contributes to this, as its ambiguity suggests that the difference between life and death is not that big.

The following art works, 'The Innocents', 'Small Saints' and 'The Arrangement', plays on similar themes, with the figures stepping forwards and backwards through the wall of water. To some, water signifies life, and the journey to go through the water, and getting wet, signifies life in a way. The video installation of 'Lover's Path' seems more like an abstract short film than anything else. However, the journey clear plays on the theme once again, as the couple walk through the dark forest, and their journey ends at the sea.

My favourite piece, however, is the 'Five Angels for the Millennium'. Unlike the previous works, it was quicker for me to understand this piece of work. Similar to 'Transfigurations', I find myself imposing features on the dark, underwater environment. The sudden entrance of a human body into the mix breaks this trance, but captures my attention even more. The video, which I am convinced is film upside down, sees the human body going deeper and deeper into the bottom of the ocean, sinking further into the darkness of death. At the same time, however, as the body is positioned to move upwards, there is this sense that the soul has the ability to go to heaven as well. It is this juxtaposition that I find incredibly interesting.

Thus, Bill Viola manages to capture life and death in his video installations. He manages these in different ways, and some works are not as effective as others. Using light and dark to show this journey, it is an emotional journey that satisfies the heart as well as the mind.

*A write up about the Transfigurations exhibition in the summer of 2008.