Bill Viola

The Messenger


Not on display

Bill Viola born 1951
Video, high definition, projection, colour and sound
Duration: 28min, 28sec
Presented by the Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation in North East England, Durham 2016


The Messenger 1996 is a video and sound installation with a running time of twenty-eight minutes and twenty-eight seconds. It exists in an edition of three with one artist’s proof; Tate’s copy is number one in the edition. The other two copies in the edition are in in the collections of the Guggenheim Museum, New York and Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo. The artist has described the work in detail as follows:

A large image is projected on a screen. The image sequence begins with a small, central, luminous, abstract form, shimmering and undulating against a deep blue-black void. Gradually the luminous shape begins to get larger and less distorted, and it soon becomes apparent that we are seeing a human form, illuminated, rising toward us from under the surface of a body of water. The water becomes more still and transparent and the figure more clear on its journey upwards towards us. We identify the figure as a man, pale blue, on his back rising up slowly. After some time, the figure breaks the surface, an act at once startling, relieving and desperate. His pale form emerges into the warm hues of bright light, the water glistening on his body. His eyes immediately open and he releases a long-held breath from the depths, shattering the silence of the image as this forceful primal sound of life resonates momentarily in the space. After a few moments, he inhales deeply, and, with his eyes shut and his mouth closed, he sinks into the depths of the blue-black void to become a shimmering moving point of light once again. The image then returns to its original state and the cycle begins again.
(Quoted in Sparrow (ed.) 1996, p.18.)

Viola has a long-standing interest in sacred texts and has an eclectic range of influences from Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese festivals of the Dead and Indian Tantric art, to Renaissance painting. With no specific religious agenda, his work addresses the major themes of life, death and spirituality. In his essay, ‘The Art of Bill Viola, A Theological Reflection’, the historian of theology David Jasper has discussed these influences and the possibilities of reading Viola’s installations theologically. Jasper underlines the ways in which Viola’s work lends itself to theological interpretation, without fixing the work’s meaning or seeing Viola as a spiritual or religious artist: ‘Rather his central concerns provoke the possibility of theological reflection and inhabit the extremes of human experience which theology seeks to articulate.’ (David Jasper, ‘The Art of Bill Viola, A Theological Reflection’, in Sparrow (ed.) 1996, p.13.)

Since the 1980s Viola has referenced traditional religious themes using his own contemporary form of spiritual iconography in video installations such as Room for St John of the Cross 1983 (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) or Nantes Triptych 1992 (Tate T06854), which was originally made for a seventeenth-century chapel in Nantes and is now in Tate’s collection. The central panel of Nantes Triptych shows a body floating in water, the visual metaphor of the human figure submerged in water being a frequently recurring motif within Viola’s work. The artist has spoken about his traumatic childhood experience of nearly drowning, though he also stresses the elemental significance of water within world religions and spiritual imagery transcending religious specificity. The art historian John Walsh has argued that the water in Five Angels for the Millennium 2001 (Tate T11805) – and in Viola’s work more generally – plays a significant role in expressing Viola’s spiritual concerns by evoking ‘a luminous void of unknown dimensions where the laws of physics seem suspended and the borders between the infinite cosmos and the finite human body merge’ (in Bill Viola, The Passions, exhibition catalogue, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2003, p.146).

Viola’s imagery often incorporates the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. Water is also a widely recognised symbol of the unconscious mind. The dramatic moment when the figure in The Messenger emerges from the water, coming up for a sharp intake of breath also serves as a reminder of the importance of air, in particular the concept of the breath as ‘prana’ or life-force within Eastern philosophy. The repetition of the figure’s immersion, submersion, ascension and eventual resurfacing invites contemplation of the threshold between depth and surface, creating a gnostic vision of human experience. The deliberately ambiguous title of The Messenger could be interpreted within the Christian context as referring to an angel or a prophet. Yet the work poses questions that are deliberately left unanswered. The viewer is left to decide whether the figure immersed in a state of enlightenment, or drowning; whether he is rising from a murky underworld into clarity and light, and, if so, why he sinks into the depths again.

The Messenger was commissioned by Canon Bill Hall on behalf of The Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation in North East England and was first shown in Durham Cathedral.

Further reading
Felicity Sparrow (ed.), Bill Viola: The Messenger, The Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation in North East England, Durham 1996.
Jungu Yoon, Spirituality in Contemporary Art, The Idea of the Numinous, London 2010.

Ann Coxon
January 2016

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