Tate, the Whitney Museum, New York, and the Pompidou Centre, Paris, recently acquired a major new installation, Five Angels for the Millennium, by the American video artist Bill Viola. This acquisition is believed to be the first international co-purchase by three major museums of a contemporary work of this significance and the work is now on display at Tate Modern.

Bill Viola’s Five Angels for the Millennium 2001 is one of his most ambitious and complex works to date. Dealing with the theme of water and its historical, psychological and spiritual dimensions, it features five video images projected directly onto a wall in a dark room. On each panel, a figure is submerged in or re-emerges from water, at times diving into the water’s surface, or hovering over it, in a continuous loop of sequences. The saturated colour shifts from blood red to grey blue, alternately evoking a sense of the sinister and of the purifying. An audio track accompanies each panel; the panels are also titled individually: Departing Angel, Birth Angel, Fire Angel, Ascending Angel, Creation Angel. The installation is site-specific to a given space, and the images are larger than life-size.

Bill Viola describes the piece `The human figure arrives intermittently as a powerful explosion of light and sound that interrupts an otherwise peaceful, nocturnal underwater landscape. Because the sequences run in slow motion, and are further altered by running backwards and forwards or right-side up and upside-down, the image is read in unexpected ways, and the disorientation becomes an essential aspect of the work’s theme’

Bill Viola was born in New York in 1951. He studied art at Syracuse University, where he began to experiment with film and video. During the 1970s and 1980s, he was an artist-in-residence at video studios in New York and Japan. Though his complex video installations are at the cutting edge of technology, they are also firmly rooted in art history. Viola has travelled widely, and is also influenced by culturally diverse sources, recording the traditional music and shamanic rituals of indigenous communities. He represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1995, and was the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1998. He lives and works in California.

The joint purchase has been supported by Lynn Forester de Rothschild for Tate and by Leonard A. Lauder, Chairman, Whitney Museum, for the Whitney Museum of American Art. The Pompidou Centre is seeking support from other sources. The Tate Collection of international art from 1900 to the present day is one of the most significant in the world. This work by Bill Viola complements a substantial group of film and video installation works in Tate Collection by renowned artists such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Steve McQueen and Gillian Wearing.