Bill Viola, 'Nantes Triptych' 1992

Bill Viola
Nantes Triptych 1992
Video and mixed media
duration: 29 min., 46 sec.
Purchased with assistance from the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foundation and from the Art Fund 1994© Bill Viola Studio

Bill Viola was born in the USA in 1951. Since 1970 he has worked extensively with film and video. He has also travelled widely, recording the traditional music and shamanic rituals of indigenous communities. He lives and works in Long Beach, California.

Bill Viola’s complex video installations such as Nantes Triptych are at the cutting edge of technology, but they are also firmly rooted in art history. In this work, he uses the form of the triptych, based on the Renaissance church altarpiece. Viola has described Renaissance churches with their frescos as ‘a form of installation; a physical, spatial, consuming experience’.

Viola continues the tradition, central to Western art, that uses the human figure to explore the great themes of existence, in this case, birth and death. These are among the most commonplace of events, yet they remain intensely private and emotionally charged. In Nantes Triptych Viola brings them into the public domain, compressing the cycle of human life into thirty minutes.

The left screen shows a young woman in the final stages of labour, culminating in the birth of her baby. On the right screen an old woman is dying. She is Viola’s own mother, filmed with the agreement of her family during her final illness. The young woman is a volunteer from a California natural childbirth clinic, but the inspiration was the birth of Viola’s own child. On the middle screen, in footage shot underwater, a ghostly figure repeatedly plunges from above and moves slowly about. This suggests a dreamlike journey between the other two screens, and has been described by Viola as a form of self-portrait ‘floating in another world with the experience of life and death’.