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.