Bill Viola at the YSP

Last Sunday, we left the Hepworth Gallery around 1:30 so decided we’d have time to drive over the the Yorkshire Sculpture Park to have a look at their exhibition of works by the American video artist, Bill Viola. I’d first heard of him when his work Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) was installed at St Paul’s Cathedral in May 2014. Intrigued, I was interested to find out more about him.

The YSP’s website tells us that

it is the most extensive exhibition in the UK by the artist for over 10 years. The immersive exhibition in YSP’s Chapel and Underground Gallery features installations from the last 20 years of Viola’s career and premieres a new work, The Trial.

It wasn’t a great day for walking around the park, but the nature of Viola’s work – high quality videos rather than the usual 3 dimensional works shown during YSP exhibitions – meant that all the works were installed indoors.

Inside the Underground Gallery the video works were shown in darkened rooms and visitors passed along a set route through them. Not quite sure what to expect, in the first room we encountered 3 video screens each of them showing an individual passing through a wall of water. Nothing much happened, but there was a calm, spiritual quality to the images. This set the scene for the remaining works – another six. Many of them involved people interacting with fire (Night Vigil) or water (The Trial, Three Women, The Dreamers and, shown in the first room, The Return and The Innocents).

The Dreamers, shown in the final room in the Underground Gallery was an installation of seven large screens which depict seven clothed individuals – men, women and a young girl -submerged underwater. Their eyes are closed and it looked as if they were dead, the only evidence otherwise being the occasional bubble rising to the surface. Strange, creepy but oddly beautiful.

I think that the Spectator review gets it right

his short, silent films are more like Renaissance paintings. Not much happens, but every moment feels full of meaning. Like religious iconography, his work addresses birth and death, and love and grief.

All were high quality videos, professionally shot with slick production values. The videos are actually produced by his wife Kira Perov. Viola comes up with the ideas and Perov sees them through to completion.

He has the visions, the flashes of inspiration — she sorts out everything else. ‘These are all his ideas, and I help make them happen,’ says Kira. (Spectator)

It’s like the relationship between a director and a producer, or an old master and his studio.So it’s more of a collaboration than he work of a single artist, but as is often the case the dreamer gets the credit while the craftsperson, the artisan, is left in the shadows.

Emerging from the darkness, the end room in the Underground Gallery was , as usual, used to display contextual materials and documentary videos about the artist. And we were able to treat ourselves to a free cup of green tea.

Afterwards, braving the icy wind, we made our way across the field to the Chapel. Here two linked works from his Tristan Project, were being shown consecutively projected on a tall screen in the darkened room. It’s a very calm, reflective space well suited to the works that were being shown –  Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall).

https://vimeo.com/97467866

The exhibition is intended to be a sensory experience with space to pause and make time to reflect and enable an emotional or even transformational experience. The Spectator review comments that “even the most down-to-earth people get emotional about Bill Viola’s videos.” I certainly found then moving and emotional, but they didn’t want to make me cry. I’m too much of a hardened materialist to be swayed into spiritual musings. But watching some of them, particularly the works from the Tristam Project shown in the chapel – was certainly an opportunity to do some calm, reflective thinking.

So another good exhibition from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It never disappoints.

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