The Art of the Sublime

Bill Viola and the Sublime

Rina Arya

The new media art of the 1970s and 1980s offered new possibilities for expressing the sublime. Rina Arya discusses selected works by the video artist Bill Viola in light of romantic notions of the sublime.
Bill Viola 'Five Angels for the Millennium' 2001
Full screen
Bill Viola
Five Angels for the Millennium 2001
© Bill Viola Studio

Bill Viola 'Nantes Triptych' 1992
Bill Viola
Nantes Triptych 1992
© Bill Viola Studio
As is well documented elsewhere on these pages, the sublime was a key theme for the theory of the visual arts in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and interest in it has revived in recent times. To summarise the contemporary position, as a category of aesthetic experience, the sublime gives artists the opportunity to define their relationship to a host of different subjects including nature, religion, sexuality and identity. The main shifts that have occurred in conceptualising the sublime in the modern era are twofold. First, the sublime started to be regarded less as an attribute of nature than as a mode of consciousness. The Enlightenment philosopher Edmund Burke having shifted the focus towards the ‘experience’ of the viewer or beholder of the sublime, the perceptual qualities of the sublime experience were categorised further by the philosopher Immanuel Kant. Secondly, attitudes towards and presentation of the sublime changed. In Romanticism, two main types of response are discernible: the theological – where nature was viewed as a reflection of the sublime – and the imaginative – where the sublime was seen as a source of creative inspiration for the artist. In the twentieth century, the key question raised by the sublime in critical discourse and the arts lay in the presentation of what was beyond representation. In The Postmodern Condition (1979), the philosopher and literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard showed how the sublime articulates ‘the incommensurability of reality to concept’.1 It cannot be expressed positively (in figurative terms) and relies on the language of abstraction to give it form. It is expressed in negative terms, such as through the dissolution of form or through the presence of voids. For example, the painting White on White (MoMA, New York) 1918 by the Russian pioneer of abstract art, Kazimir Malevich, is widely regarded as the apotheosis of absolute emptiness, conveying a feeling of infinite space as it strives to render that which is beyond representation.
The abstract expressionist artist Barnett Newman was intent on aligning the sublime with contemporary aesthetic concerns, writing a theoretical text, ‘The Sublime is Now’ in 1948 for the avant-garde magazine Tiger’s Eye. His canvases – often extraordinarily large – show fields of flat colour with vertical strips of a different colour breaking up the homogeneity of the surface. The relationship between these ‘zips’ (Newman’s term) and the background colour fields can be posited as a relational difference between immanence and transcendence. As the philosopher Paul Crowther writes, ‘The implied analogy is that just as the zip is properly defined and comprehensible only through its opposition to the colour-field, so humanity can only define and express its own finite rational nature in opposition to the infinite and unknown’.2 Discussing Newman’s Onement I 1948, Crowther argues that ‘here Newman could express humanity’s relation to the unknown not simply by destroying form in the standard manner of sublime art but by creating an artefact that embodies this relation through a subtle kind of non-representational symbolism’.3 The sublime was activated in the relation between the viewer and the painting. The theologian Mark C. Taylor observes how Newman ‘translated the Kantian dynamic sublime from nature to culture by reinscribing the power of formlessness in the sensation of paint as such’.4 Instead of being deflected into an other-worldly realm, Newman feels that ‘the sublime is here, is now’, leading the art historian Robert Rosenblum to make a characteristically quirky observation: ‘what used to be pantheism has now become a kind of “paint-theism”’.5
One could argue that if Newman and other abstract expressionist artists encapsulated the ethos of the contemporary sublime so aptly, then there could be no possible further pictorial development from the abstract expressionist position.6 If geometrical abstraction is able to convey the radical immanence of the sublime, which is in the here-and-now, then how can the sublime be further developed in the visual arts? Within the remit of painting (and arguably sculpture) Newman appeared to have developed a persuasive thesis – not a total and unproblematic thesis, but one that gained critical acclaim, nonetheless, and one that self-evidently stimulated further thought. However, a shift in thinking about the sublime was brought about by the intervention of technologies in new media art of the 1970s and 1980s.7 The art historian Simon Morley has described how in the 1980s ‘a new wave of postmodern sublimity swept over the art world’.8 Technology widened the possibilities for creating transformative environments that were totally immersive especially in the combination of the relationship between space and light (such as in the work of James Turrell) and in the exciting possibilities for the interaction of the senses from the visual to the aural to the tactile. The video screen was a radically different interface and created possibilities of thinking about virtuality, hyperreality and cyberspace. The American artist Bill Viola embraced the potential of video art while a student at Syracuse University in the 1970s, and has since been central in expanding the possibilities of this medium through his innovative explorations of content and form.9 Compared to the more traditional media, such as painting and sculpture, video has the power to engulf the viewer entirely.10 It has an immediacy and directness that commands the attention of the viewer in a much more sensory way. The art theorist Cynthia Freeland describes Viola’s work as ‘“excessive”: not only does its scale of presentation increasingly tend towards the grandiose, but the effects of encountering it may exceed our capacity to contain our responses’.11 Viola varies his choice of format, work by work, and his mode of delivery has varied over time but the outcome is always that he creates art that is absorbing and contemplative.

Five Angels for the Millennium

Five Angels for the Millennium 2001 consists of five video sequences: Ascending Angel; Creation Angel; Fire Angel; Birth Angel;and Departing Angel. Each video is projected directly onto a wall in a dark room and shows a male figure submerging in or remerging from water, at times diving into the water’s surface, and at other times hovering over it. These actions occur in a continuous loop, which are enhanced by a soundtrack of underwater noises, including the crashing of waves and colour changes (from blood red to grey blue). The action of the figure seems fairly simple, in that we are looking at the rise and fall of a figure above or below a body of water. However, it soon becomes clear that the trajectory of the figure is not straightforward. Viola runs the sequences in slow motion. He also varies the direction of events, so that the sequences run backwards as well as forwards, upside down as well as the right way up. An additional factor is the soundtrack of crashing waves, which does not correspond with the instant that the figure hits the surface of the water. Although there is a buildup to the climax, the timing of the crash remains unpredictable and, as a result, is entirely arresting. The combination of factors – the life-size scale of the figures and the speed, order and sensation of these sequences – is disorienting and contributes to the overriding sense of the sublime. In the Critique of Judgment (1790) Kant describes the sublime as referring to things which are formless or which ‘have form but, for reasons of size, exceed our ability to perceive such form’.12 Viola’s Five Angels are life-size but their scattered placements, as well as the sensory effects that accompany the movement of the figures, make the overall image formless: the viewer simply cannot take it all in and is completely overwhelmed. The work evokes the duality of the sublime. It plays on our primal fear of drowning while also introducing passages of wonder, namely when the figure emerges from the surface of the water and hovers in mid-air, which defies all expectations.
The shift of all aspects of the video (from the direction of movement of the figure, to the sound, to the alteration of colour) contributes to the sensory overload. Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) lists certain qualities that give rise to the experience of the sublime. These include vastness, infinity, magnificence, succession and uniformity, all of which, Five Angels exhibits.. The scale is vast, the projections of the figures create the perspective of infinity, they display magnificence, and the rise and fall demonstrates succession and uniformity (and infinity, as the cycle never ends). Burke also includes obscurity, which is also applicable in this context. With Five Angels the darkness of the room, the unpredictability of the sequence of events, including the movements of the figures, and accompanying colour and sounds is obfuscating. Burke states how:
To make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger.13
The action of Viola’s figures (their rise and submersion in water), coupled with the religious reference in the title, encourages comparison with the Christian sacrament of baptism. Viola takes the core ritualised action of baptism and distorts it to dramatic effect – so that re-emergence does not necessarily follow on from submersion. In a baptism the surface of the water operates as a threshold between the old (not saved) and the new (saved). The symbolism does not apply in this context: we have only the experience of the limit, whether this be when the figure has plummeted into the depths of the water and lies still as if drowning, or when the figure has been raised up into the air. Both these trajectories create fear in the viewer and the ascended figure creates exhilaration. When analysing the meaning of the work it is worth questioning the significance of the title of the work, Five Angels. Although it appears as if we are looking at ordinary men they do not behave as if they are ordinary. It appears as if they have been invested with supernatural forces, which enable them to defy the laws of nature, or else these are ordinary men suspended in a universe that runs contrary to the laws of science.
In Five Angels we experience conflicting emotions: despair, exhilaration and uncertainty. We feel despair at the seeming immobility of the still figure at the bottom of the water. This is counterbalanced by the exhilaration of the ascension. And, the unpredictability of the sequence gives way to a general feeling of uncertainty. Viola invites the viewer to consider the importance of ritual as an ordered activity that structures behaviour and responses so that we equate the period of submersion with representing reflection, inactivity and quiet. This is accompanied by the rising above the water, which indicates new life, new beginning and is energising. But here we have a distortion of the conventional pattern of activity in baptism . The paradox is that, through distortion, the conventional cycle of baptism is reconfigured in the mind of the viewer, in the following way. The familiarity of viewing a baptism (or viewing any ritual or repeated activity for that matter) can generate thoughtlessness, where the viewer is not properly paying attention to the activity or, because they expect a particular sequence of events, they may be thinking about the unfolding of the sequence rather than actually looking at what is going on. The solution to this problem is to disrupt the pattern, which Viola has done, and this prompts reflection and hence the fresh recognition of a familiar phenomenon. From a cognitive standpoint Viola is making an interesting point about the function of a particular ritualised episode. From the experiential sense, however, the viewer experiences the uncertainty and discontinuity of the sequences, where our anxiety when the figure submerges is challenged by the sublimity of the surge of the figure as he is lifted high up above the surface of the water. The slow motion freezes the sequences as the viewer feels suspended in this state of animation.
Ritual in in fact a key term that is resonant within Five Angels and within Viola’s work in general. A ritual is a practice with strong conventional (often socialised) elements to it that is routinely performed. Rituals can be individual or collective, personal or general. Religions use rituals to organise and structure behaviour, particularly around the sacred. Rituals are an indispensable part of life and have a multiplicity of sociological functions. They define the social by bringing people together through collective action, and they also give structure to individual identity. A recurring motif within the ritual is the threshold or the boundary. This can be visible or invisible (and psychological) but what is paramount is that the crossing of this boundary indicates a shift of state or mentality. And so, effectively, we have a ‘before’ and ‘after’ and we feel the force in the crossing from one to the other. In Five Angels the water represents the boundary, the submersion and ascension represent two opposing states and the point of submersion and ascension is the threshold. Viola annihilates the straightforward simplicity of this pattern by introducing colour changes in the water, which disturb our interpretative framework. Even more distracting are the sounds, which, as mentioned earlier, do not concord with the actions. Hearing a crash or roar at inopportune moments is dislocating. Furthermore, the feature of having to process all these different actions on different screens in a darkened room adds to the sublime confusion of the event.

Nantes Triptych

Nantes Triptych 1992 involves the viewer in a different way. Viola chose the form of a triptych, traditionally used in mediaeval, Renaissance and later western art to depict religious subjects. The three panels show video footage, which from left to right are of birth, as represented by a young woman in the last stages of labour culminating in the birth of her baby; a clothed man underwater; and a dying woman. The clothed man in the central panel moves between alternate stages of struggle and stillness, and is held in suspension before an indistinct shadowy space. He signifies the journey of life with its ups and downs, and is literally suspended between birth and death. These three videos mark the various stages in life with a poignant urgency. What is alarming is the range of emotions that this work induces in the viewer. In daily life and in most cultures the activity of childbearing is regarded as joyous and is kept apart from the process of dying. The potentiality and energy exuded by the first panel is counterbalanced by the stillness of the third panel while the central figure can be seen to be enacting the emotions of both stages – vitality in his movement, and morbidity in his stillness. The first and third panels embody emotions that are simply beyond words. The creation of a new life is inexhaustibly joyous while the final breaths of a dying person are too poignant to capture in words. Scholar of the sublime, Philip Shaw describes sublimity as referring ‘to the moment when the ability to apprehend, to know, and to express a thought a sensation is defeated. Yet through this defeat, the mind gets a feeling for that which lies beyond thought and language.’14 This sentiment applies when considering the first and third panels in Viola’s piece. The knowledge that the footage of the third panel is taken from Viola filming his mother during her final illness adds to the emotional pitch. The three scenes are connected by a soundtrack of crying, the movement of water and breathing in a thirty-minute loop.
In A Philosophical Inquiry Burke articulates how experiencing otherwise terrifying phenomena from a position of safety can elicit ‘a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror; which, as it belongs to self-preservation, is one of the strongest of all the passions’.15 Viola appeals to this ambivalence of emotions in the set-up of Nantes Triptych. The three screens fill the visual field of the viewer, which makes it difficult to avert our gaze. Furthermore, the sounds vitalise the images and force the viewer to confront the realities that await us both literally (in our visual field) and symbolically, during the course of our lives. Sound both intersects and interjects into each of the frames, which requires the viewer to begin to view the three frames as a coherent whole. Initially, the three panels are viewed as embodying radically different emotions and this causes the viewer to regard them as separate frames. The repetition of the soundtrack helps to synchronise the different sounds of the cries of birth with the last breaths of life. This modulates the differences until we no longer hear them separately and we begin to unify the experiences. The linear framework of birth, life and death is transcended and the three become entwined in the cycle of existence, where death is not viewed as a state that occurs at the end of life but is inherent within its very condition.

The sublime in Viola

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy describes the sublime as being, ‘a feeling, and yet more than a feeling in the banal sense, it is the emotion of the subject at the limit’.16 This describes the viewer’s experience in the face of both Five Angels and Nantes Triptych. The continuity of movement of the figures in Five Angels from lying in the depths of the water to hovering in mid-air takes the viewer to the edges of their threshold of experience. Indeed, we would not know how to respond to a figure whose actions have taken them beyond the boundaries of normality. Equally, in Nantes Triptych the viewer is forced to confront extreme experiences, such as birth and dying, which takes them to the limits of our emotional, cognitive (we do not know what it is like to die) and linguistic experience (where the only responses to such events are anterior to language, such as the cry). Five Angels and Nantes Triptych typify Viola’s articulation of the overcoming of limits. The religious connotations of the titles that Viola has given to these works may lead one to believe that the nature of overcoming is religious, where the self is in a transaction with the divine.
The religious dimensions of Viola’s work have been increasingly recognised by interpreters of his work.17 In 1996 he installed The Messenger in Durham Cathedral. In 2007 he was awarded the AAR (the American Academy of Religion) Religion and Arts Award as recognition for his contribution to the field. In 2009 he was commissioned by the Anglican Church to create a work of art for St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Religion is a part of Viola’s background. He was brought up as an Episcopalian but has a varied interest in cultures and spiritualities. He is influenced by the approach of the twentieth-century Indian philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy, who encouraged a cross-cultural approach to his work, aiming to bridge the gap between eastern and western philosophy. In particular, Viola is drawn towards mysticism (including the writings of St John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart and Islamic Sufism). He also cites Zen Buddhism, which he practised during his year-long sojourn in Japan in 1980–1, as having a particularly strong influence on his outlook and practice. Zen is central in the reception of his art and in its effect in encouraging mindful reflection on everyday life. Although it is undeniable that the wealth of religious resources spurred on Viola’s aesthetic practice and philosophical reflection this does not, however, make his work religious. It is not religious in the sense that he is not supporting a religious tradition or particular doctrine, nor is he making any claims about the divine. The religious titles of some of Viola’s works – The Arch of Ascent 1992, Stations 1994, The Messenger 1996, Five Angels for the Millennium 2001, The Passions 2003 and 2005, and Transfigurations 2008 – are perhaps misleading in that they do not refer to an alternative or parallel universe but to the real world in which Viola firmly places his work. Viola’s titles are used poetically where they are meant to be evocative of religion and mythology and the emotions accompanying the experience of that evocation.18 But any further reference to the religious sacrament of baptism or theme of the Passion of Christ, for instance, is eschewed. Viola’s use of the devotional art of the late middle ages and the early Renaissance, such as the work of Giotto and Piero della Francesca, follows a similar pattern. He was interested in the emotions evoked in these religious images with a view to recreating emotive viewing in a contemporary audience but not with the view of inspiring piety to the divine.
If his titles are meant to be poetic allusions and not literal descriptions, what then is the subject of his work? Viola’s primary subject is the human condition. He is interested in the place of the human in the world, the ambivalence of the forces of nature,19 the life cycle of the human and the impossibility of representing death. All these issues can be encapsulated in the following central theme – the human’s relation to finitude.20 How do we feel when confronted by our most elemental fears, such as drowning? Viola’s evocations of the sublime do not induce a sense of transcendence in the religious sense of being united with the divine or of understanding our creaturehood. Rather, the experience of the sublime simply affirms the fact of our immanence, which is an immanence of the bodily. The final breaths of the dying figure in Nantes Triptych do not open up a world of eternal life but are an acute reminder of the shortness of time between birth and death.
Shaw describes how, ‘the postmodern sublime is defined not by its intimations of transcendence but rather by its confirmation of immanence’.21 Simon Morley adds that we are looking at ‘immanent transcendence ... about a transformative experience that is understood as occurring within the here and now’.22 The sublime effects of the soaring figures in Five Angels and the mesmerising effects of the three figures in Nantes Triptych transport the viewer from being in a mundane state of mind to feeling beside oneself. However, we are not taken to some otherworldly place but rather return to the mundane with a fresh perspective. Behind the frail exterior of the dying woman is not eternal life but a realisation of the immanence of the flesh and the transience of life. In returning to the inevitability of our mortality Viola is making the everyday sacred. In thinking about experiences of the liminal, David Morgan makes a distinction between ‘transcendence’ and ‘transformation’. He defines the former as that which ‘posits a mystery present in the work of art as an encounter with a metaphysical order beyond or hidden within the ordinary sensuous world’. In contrast, transformation ‘means the rupture of the ordinary domains and patterns of authority’.23 Both Five Angels and Nantes Triptych rupture our conventional understanding about the world. In addition, Five Angels ruptures the notion of the ritual and our understanding of the laws of science. Equally, Nantes Triptych ruptures our customary and cultural placement of the relationship between life and death. Through rupture we learn. Viola presents ‘allegorical representations of human experience’.24
Viola’s work is as much about the viewer and our personal and prophetic journey as it is about his inception of the idea and his execution of the work. The figures that participate in his performances are ordinary people, and the dramas are about life’s processes of growing, ageing, dying, and about reconciling ourselves with the inevitable changes in life. Many of his earlier works require the interaction of the viewer.25 Nantes Triptych is not solely about the experiences of three anonymous individuals at different stages in their lives but about the viewer integrating themselves into the fabric of life. Viola casts his figures in the role of everyman/everywoman, and this increases the level of empathy that the viewer has with the work. The observation of minutiae and the manipulation of temporal and spatial frames sharpen the intensity of the vision and the coagulation of emotion. We are implicated in the narrative, and it becomes about our life and the paths that we take. His video art holds up a mirror to our lives, where self-perception becomes a path to self-knowledge.

Updating the sublime

Viola is updating the sublime for a contemporary secular audience. He alludes to religious images and metaphors in his titles and in his art historical references to the past, but then does something radically different by deflecting the focus onto the everyday. The sublime is then experienced within the context of events that define our humanity, such as childbirth or death. But in all cases there is no beyond. In Five Angels the pattern of rise and fall does not point to a new life but the endless cycle of life with its ups and downs. Viola uses rich and evocative symbols, such as ‘angels’ and ‘messengers’, but the only supernatural aspects are in the connotations that we recognise. In his art Viola is holding a mirror up to the viewer and is showing the full force of the sublime. We are not experiencing the sublime of Romanticism, which is mediated by symbols and metaphors with reference to a higher faculty. Here we see the postmodern sublime wholly as the other which cannot be assimilated and that retains its shock value. Viola has followed in the footsteps of Barnett Newman who cast aside archaic religious symbols in order to devise what he regarded as his own self-evident reality. Newman explains the purpose behind his work in ‘The Sublime is Now’:
We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions. We do not need the obsolete props of an outmoded and antiquated legend. We are creating images whose reality is self-evident ... We are freeing ourselves of the impediments of memory, association, nostalgia, legend, myth, or what have you, that have been the devices of Western European painting. Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man, or ‘life,’ we are making it out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete, that can be understood by anyone who will look at it without the nostalgic glasses of history.26
Newman wanted the power of the sublime to speak for itself through the intensity of his images. The hallucinatory feelings that viewers experience when seeing his works firsthand are what Newman referred to as ‘man’s natural desire for the exalted’. He regarded figurative symbols of the past as outdated and as not immediate enough for the revelation of the present. Instead, he abstracts (both as a language and as a process) to the point of emptiness. Similarly, Viola casts aside the ‘nostalgic glasses of history’ in his art. The notable difference is that while Newman wholeheartedly rejects figuration and art historical traditions Viola uses art-historical references only in order to subvert them. He presents Nantes Triptych as if it was a Passion narrative and even utilises the triptych form; but instead of the suffering of Christ we see only three ordinary individuals. In a conventional religious triptych, the central panel is invariably the most significant, being the painted space that remains on show when the side wings of the altarpiece are closed. Moreover, the central panel frequently depicts the crucifixion, which is the climax of the Christian narrative. The comparative bathos of looking at a clothed man struggling under water as the central panel of the Nantes Triptych is sobering. There is nothing beyond this. And death does not lead to eternality but only to the cessation of life.
In updating the sublime Viola conveys the ferocity of elemental fears. Nineteenth-century examples of the sublime in painting, such as J.M.W. Turner’s Snow Storm – Steam Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth 1842 or Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog 1818 demonstrated two things: the overpowering and unpredictable forces of nature and the relative insignificance of the individual in the face of such danger. In their works we see, amongst other things, the magnitude of the elemental forces of the sea and sky. These feelings draw the viewer into the spectacle while also causing sentiments of terror. This irreducible ambiguity of emotions renders the experience sublime. Rosenblum aptly encapsulates the terror in Turner’s Snow Storm: ‘steam, wind, water, snow and fire spin wildly around the pitiful work of man – the ghost of a boat – in vortical rhythms that suck one into a sublime whirlpool before reason can intervene’.27 Viola’s work represents a development within the history of art. He heightens the pitch of emotions by abstracting the elements: we do not experience water as a topological feature that combines with sky and land but as the totality of the experience. Furthermore, the advancement of technology means that Viola can use actual water, rather than a representation of it, and this exacerbates the sense of fear that is generated. The technologies at his disposal enable him to create the spatial and temporal conditions of a storm that is more frightening and more encapsulating than Turner’s and Friedrich’s contributions. Our capacity to seek critical distance from Viola is limited and hence the encounter with the sublime more fearful. In both Turner’s and Friedrich’s art the materiality of nature is articulated in quasi-spiritual terms. However, in Viola’s work the materiality is all that there is; there is nothing other than the materiality of the elements.
Viola evokes the sublime in order to engage the viewer emotionally and he does this by affecting the sensory aspects of being. He does not have a specific message to impart in his work and considers his work as a meditation on such central questions and issues in life as ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Where are we going?’ And, he shows us what it feels like to be alive. Viola does not advocate an overtly didactic approach – he simply wants to invite the viewers to respond to his work on an experiential level. Viola’s work is about the human condition, which is primarily about coming to terms with the fact that we are embodied and encounter suffering, pain, alienation and death. Some viewers may be able to seek solace in his work – the realisation that there is nothing beyond this life might prompt some to seek fellow-feeling or community with others, as a way of overcoming their limited condition.
Video art has an immediacy and presence that is entirely appropriate for Viola’s expressions. An indispensable aspect of his work is the medium. ‘Video is a tool of inquiry and wonder’ that enables Viola to attain ‘his goal ... of a close contact with the stream of life’.28 The reason that the viewer responds so strongly and emotionally to some of his installations is due to the intuitive aspects of video art, which invites the viewer to participate in an open-ended dialogue.29 The darkness of the room encourages a feeling of complete absorption in the work. One is not distracted by other visitors as one would be in any other museum experience. In ‘The Elemental Sublime’ (1997) Lisa Jaye Young discusses how, ‘by means of darkness, repetitive imagery, slow motion, sound, and abstraction’, Viola ‘encourages a meditative response from the viewer’. Furthermore, ‘he transforms the art museum into both public viewing space and private meditational space’.30 In his manipulation of light, space, sound and visual imagery Viola creates a Gesamtkunstwerk (a total art work) that simulates the real. Lori Zippay observes how Viola ‘creates a visual, perceptual and ultimately allegorical language from the raw material’.31
Viola reminds us what it is to be alive and embodied, conditions we often suspend in the fast-paced hyperreal world of peak experiences. The irony is that in his high-tech microcosms we move further and further back into the body. We do not see representations of the body but experience sensations in the body. We are not simply viewers but undertake a more participatory role: we are witnesses who experience what is being unveiled before us.
Viola has revived the sublime for a contemporary audience. His work is an update and a radical revision of the offerings of Romanticism, for example, Friedrich’s Monk at Sea 1808–10. In this work a diminutive figure stands at the edge of the land mass beside a dark sea and immense sky that seems to envelop him. Clothed in a dark robe, the form of the monk seems to disappear into the black sea. Taylor describes how the monk ‘is both overpowered by the forces of nature and absorbed in a totality that infinitely surpasses the isolated individual’.32 Rosenblum qualifies this relationship in theological terms. The tiny man in Friedrich’s work represents ‘a poignant contrast between the infinite vastness of a pantheistic God and the infinite smallness of His creatures’.33 In the dual forces of attraction and repulsion represented in the painting, nature is sublime, or to use a cognate term in a religious sense, numinous.
Viola’s update occurs on many levels. First, the power of nature in Viola is distilled. In Monk at Sea nature takes the form of a ‘mystic trinity of sky, water and earth’ and appears ‘to emanate from one unseen source’.34 By contrast, in Viola we do not see the environs but only experience the force of the elements vis-à-vis the dialogue between the visual and aural, and the combined sensory effects are overwhelming. Young comments on how ‘the sublime, usually associated with an overpowering sensation, is for Viola the abstract force of fire or water, the awesome power of natural forces’.35 This is crucial – the lack of context makes the natural forces more brutal and potent. They are unbridled. The second main change is the level of interactivity that new media invites. In Friedrich’s work we empathise with the monk, but in Viola’s art we are unable to distance ourselves from the action as we fall victim to the full force of nature. Friedrich commonly used the trope of the Rückenfigur, a person seen from behind contemplating the view. The anonymity of the figure prompted connections to be made between them and the viewer. As in Viola’s work, the figure is an everyman or everywoman, who stands in for the generic experience of humanity. His sophisticated use of technology creates a simulation of the real resulting in a more sustained experience of the sublime. Finally, there is a difference of intention – Friedrich used the landscape as a vehicle to convey religious mysticism while Viola uses the elemental power of nature to remind us of our humanity. In Viola, the sublime does not have an upward inflection: it is not connected with transcendence or the overcoming of the self. Nor does the artist wish to convey the horror of the abyss – the absence of an afterlife as shown in Nantes Triptych communicates to us the reality of our material flesh-and-blood condition: it just is. In that respect Viola’s sublime is closer to Newman’s sublime, which conveys the impossibility of representation rather than as a way of attempting to create a dialogue between the phenomena and the noumena.


Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. By Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester 1984 [1979], p.79.
Paul Crowther, ‘Barnett Newman and the Sublime’, Oxford Art Journal, vol.7, no.2, 1984, pp.52–9, 56.
Ibid., p.56.
Mark C. Taylor, Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion, London 1992, p.89.
Robert Rosenblum, ‘The Abstract Sublime’, in Ellen G. Landau (ed.), Reading Abstract Expressionism: Context and Critique, New Haven and London 2003, pp.273–8, 278.
This is discussed in Crowther 1984, p.57.
‘New media’ is an umbrella term that encompasses video art, computer art and in general incorporates the developments of the digital age into fine art practice.
Simon Morley, ‘Introduction’, in Simon Morley (ed.), The Sublime, London and Cambridge MA 2010, pp.12–21, 13.
Viola employs electronic, sound and image technology to create an extensive range of works, such as videotapes, architectonic video installations, music performances and flat panel video pieces.
Barnett Newman encourages this sense of direct participation by removing the frame. This allows for the union of viewer and painting.
Chris Townsend, ‘Call me old-fashioned, but...’, in Chris Townsend (ed.), The Art of Bill Viola, London 2004, pp.6–23, 9.
Paul Crowther, The Kantian Sublime, Madison 1974, p.99.
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Oxford 1990 [1757], part II, §3, p.54.
Philip Shaw, The Sublime, London 2006, p.3.
Crowther 1984, p.52.
Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘The Sublime Offering’, in Jean-Francois Courtine (ed.), Of the Sublime: Presence in Question, trans. by Jeffrey S. Librett, Albany 1993, pp.44–48, 44.
See David Jasper, ‘Screening Angels: The Messenger, Durham Cathedral, 1996’ and David Morgan, ‘Spirit and Medium’, in Townsend (ed.) 2004, pp.180–195, 88–109.
Interestingly, Newman used religious titles for a similar reason. His titles, Onement, The Beginning, Pagan Void and Adam evoke sentiments of the sublime.
Viola plays up the opposing features of the elements – water can give life but can also take it away.
Although I suggested that Viola’s work was not meant to be interpreted as religious art it is possible to argue that if religion is to be read broadly in the sense of engaging with one’s place in the universe and grappling with the meaning of life then his work is broadly religious/spiritual. However, this does not alter the indubitable fact that there is nothing beyond the flesh. This eschatological reality is poignantly summed up in Nantes Triptych.
Shaw 2006, p.3.
Morley 2010, p.18.
David Morgan, ‘Secret Wisdom and Self-Effacement: The Spiritual in the Modern Age’, in Richard Francis and Sophia Shaw (ed.), Negotiating Rapture, Chicago 1996, pp.34–48, 41–2.
John-Paul Stonard, ‘Viola, Bill’, Grove Art Online, Oxford Art Online,
Lahey makes a distinction between Viola’s early works, which he describes as being more conducive to viewers’ participation, and hence more interactive, and later work, which relies less on the viewers’ interventions. Jonathan Lahey Dronsfield, ‘On the Anticipation of Responsibility’, in Townsend (ed.) 2004, pp.72–87, 76.
Barnett Newman, ‘The Sublime is Now’ [1948], in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (ed.), Art in Theory 1900–90, Oxford 1992, pp.572–74, 574.
Rosenblum 1961.
Maria Antonella Pelizzari, ‘Writing on White Paper’, Performing Arts Journal, vol.18, no.3, 1996, pp.20–5, 24.
Ibid., p.20.
Lisa Jaye Young, ‘Reviewed work(s): Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath, by Bill Viola’, Performing Arts Journal, vol.19, 1997, pp.65–71, 65.
Lori Zippay, ‘Untitled Review’, Art Journal, vol.45, no.3, 1985, pp.263–9, p.264.
Taylor 1992, p.18.
Rosenblum, in Landau 2003, pp.274–6.
Young 1997, p.70.


A shorter version of this paper was given at the conference on The Contemporary Sublime held at Tate Britain in February 2010, organised by the AHRC-funded research project ‘The Sublime Object: Nature, Art and Language’.
Rina Arya is a Reader in the School of Art and Design at the University of Wolverhampton.

How to cite

Rina Arya, ‘Bill Viola and the Sublime’, in Nigel Llewellyn and Christine Riding (eds.), The Art of the Sublime, January 2013,, accessed 19 April 2014.