The J. Paul Getty Museum


Object Details




Bill Viola (American, born 1951)






High definition video master tape

Object Number:



Other: 198.1 × 198.1 cm (78 × 78 in.)


© Bill Viola

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This work was commissioned by the J. Paul Getty Museum

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Object Description

In the publication Bill Viola: The Passions, the artist describes the plot of his video Emergence:

Two women are seen sitting on either side of a marble cistern in a small courtyard. They wait patiently in silence, only occasionally acknowledging each other's presence. Time becomes suspended and indeterminate, the purpose and destination of their actions unknown. Their vigil is suddenly interrupted by a premonition. The younger woman abruptly turns and stares at the cistern. She watches in disbelief as a young man's head appears, and then his body rises up, spilling water over the sides and out onto the base and the courtyard floor.

The cascading water catches the older woman's attention, and she turns to witness the miraculous event. She stands up, drawn by the young man's rising presence. The younger woman grasps his arm and caresses it as if greeting a lost lover. When the young man's pale body reaches its fullest extension, he totters and falls. The older woman catches him in her arms, and with the help of the younger woman, they struggle to lower him gently to the ground. Lying prone and lifeless, he is covered by a cloth. Cradling his head on her knees, the older woman finally breaks down in tears as the younger woman, overcome with emotion, tenderly embraces his body.

As a work of art, Emergence transcends this--and probably any--literal description. The video resembles a painting because it is framed, mounted into a wall, silent, and the narrative occurs in extremely slow motion. As a rear-projection installation, it assumes an otherworldly glow. Although the plot suggests biblical stories such as Christ's Resurrection, such metaphorical associations are ambiguous: For example, the man rising out of a fountain of water implies birth, but his body, when laid out on the ground, suggests death.

It is the viewer's participation almost as a bystander to a miraculous event, however, that makes the work mesmerizing. During the nearly twelve-minute video, the observer experiences the same extended passage of time as the women waiting by the well. This deliberate slowing down of sensual input encourages a heightened awareness of the characters' every nuanced expression and movement--and in turn, of the viewer's own perceptive process.

Emergence was commissioned by the Getty Museum as part of the Bill Viola: The Passions exhibition organized by the Museum in 2003. The video was inspired by a fresco from the 1400s by Masolino da Panicale, in which the dead Christ is shown at the moment of Resurrection.

Viola's Emergence (November 21, 2007 to August 24, 2008)
  • The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center (Los Angeles), November 21, 2007 to August 24, 2008
Education Resources
Education Resources

Education Resource




Moving Pictures; Moving Stories

Lesson to examine a contemporary video installation and a 17th-century Flemish painting. Students create a storyboard plan for their own video.

Visual Arts


Three/Five-Part Lesson