The Nantes Triptych was originally conceived as a commission for the Centre National des Arts Plastiques in France, to be shown in a seventeenth-century chapel in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nantes in 1992. Viola has taken the form of the triptych, traditionally used in Western art for religious paintings, to represent, through the medium of video, his own contemporary form of spiritual iconography. The three panels of Viola’s triptych show video footage of birth (on the left), death (on the right) and a metaphorical journey between the two represented by a body floating in water (in the centre). The footage used was not originally shot for this particular project. The birth was inspired by the birth of Viola’s first son in 1988 (although it does not depict his son’s birth) and was filmed at a natural childbirth clinic in California. The artist has used this footage in several works. The floating body in the central panel was filmed in a swimming pool for an earlier work, The Passing (1987–88). Viola filmed his mother as she lay dying in a coma in 1991 as a means of confronting her death artistically. The three passages are accompanied by a soundtrack of crying, water movement and breathing in a 30-minute loop. In this compacted space birth and death eclipse the dreamy suspension which represents, in the central panel, the thinking, active human life. Here it is not life’s journey which is important, but its beginning and end.
Originally from New York, Viola has travelled widely. He studied Zen meditation and advanced video technology during a period of 18 months in Japan, before moving to southern California at the beginning of the 1980s. His experience of Eastern philosophy has informed his artistic investigation into the relationship between an individual’s inner life and the experience of his body. In his work with experimental sound and video he therefore aims to create art which operates as a complete ‘experience’. Viola believes that art has an enlightening and redemptive function. ‘Images have transformative powers within the individual self … art can articulate a kind of healing or growth or completion process … it is a branch of knowledge, epistemology in the deepest sense, and not just an aesthetic practice’ (Bill Viola 1995, p.245). For him birth and death, the markers which delineate our life-span, ‘are mysteries in the truest sense of the word, not meant to be solved, but rather experienced and inhabited. This is the source of their knowledge’ (Viola 1995, p.251). He believes that in our Western science-oriented culture ‘issues such as birth and death no longer command our attention after they have been physically explained’, and that it is essential to return to them as ‘wake-up calls’ with powerful emotional and spiritual effects (Viola 1995, p.273).
Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973–1994, London 1995.
Marilyn Zeitlin (ed.), Bill Viola: Buried Secrets, exhibition catalogue, Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe 1995, p.78, reproduced p.79.
Lewis Hyde, David Ross, Kira Perov and others, Bill Viola, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 1997, p.102.
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