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Bill Viola: The Passions
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Catherine's Room / Viola

Emotions are the subject of The Passions, a series Viola has been making during the past three years. In these new video works he grapples with one of the oldest problems of art: How to convey the power and complexity of emotion by depicting the faces and bodies of models—specifically, in his works, of performers. In addition to the 12 works from The Passions series, the exhibition also includes Five Angels for the Millennium, the kind of installation that made Viola famous, an all-enveloping environment of sight and sound. He sees Five Angels as "another form of The Passions, the reservoir from which they come."

Five Angels for the Millennium / Viola
Short Film

Viola immersed himself in the conventions of expression during a period of study at the Getty Research Institute in 1998. With a group of scholars, he took part in a year of study devoted to representing the passions. For him, the central question was how the extremes of emotion—in which the ability to reflect is actually lost—can be represented. Viola brought from his library in Long Beach the Eastern texts, including Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi writers, he had been reading for years. At the Getty he read recent studies on medieval devotion and the depiction of emotion in the history of art.

On most days, after lunch, Viola would walk over to the paintings galleries of the Getty Museum. Religious works of the 15th and 16th centuries were his main preoccupation, and several of these later helped shape works in his own Passions series. During that year, he stockpiled a trove of books and photocopies to which he would turn frequently over the next two years while working on his Passions project.

Quotation by Peter Sellars

Man of Sorrows / Viola

Archetypal dream patterns, universal cycles of time, and processes of life, growth, and death have been recurring themes in Viola's installations and videotapes. While his imagery has always been drawn from contemporary life, he occasionally turned for inspiration to earlier art. In 1995 he had begun to explore the idea of recreating the spaces in older paintings, using actors and stage sets, in his installation The Greeting, inspired by a painting by the 16th-century painter Pontormo.

After leaving the Getty, Viola began to fill a notebook with ideas for new pieces, writing, "Portraits: facial expressions, tears..." and "Emotions in Extreme Time. Expressions of the passions, external display of emotional states, waves of conflicting emotions over time, change of heart, change of mind, the turbulent surface."

Unlike his earlier projected works, which require a relatively dark and controlled environment, Viola imagined The Passions pieces displayed on the newest development in video playback: digital flat panel screens that not only give a bright, sharp picture, but are portable and thus suitable for display in a normal gallery setting, like the small devotional paintings whose format Viola wanted to evoke.

The Passions pieces required amazing versatility on Viola's part. They took him far from his adventures with a Sony Betacam and his solo nights with the editing machine. This new work requires the kind of production teams one would see listed in the trailer of a Hollywood movie (view credits). Much like Rubens, who was a producer and supervisor of a team of assistants and specialists, Viola had to call upon his ability to mobilize and inspire actors and a large production crew to make The Passions come to life.

For 30 years Viola's art has been devoted to exploring an unseen world of feeling, of memory, of unfulfilled yearning for wholeness. The mystical literature of Europe and Asia, and Viola's own spiritual practice, have helped lay a foundation for his work and define its purpose: to lead him and others toward self-knowledge. Viola's study of ancient Hindu scripture and its ideal of perfecting the self, transmitted through Buddhism, has become the focus of the Zen thought and personal experience that has informed his work.

—John Walsh, Curator and Director Emeritus

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