Review of Bill Viola at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Review of Bill Viola at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

For those familiar with the work of American video artist Bill Viola, descriptions often vary between ground-breaking, core-shaking and emotionally immersive.  This winter, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is hosting the most extensive exhibition of Viola’s work in the UK for over 10 years.  Five years in the making, it’s an exhibition which will undoubtedly stir the emotions of even the toughest of critics.

The main exhibition space in the Underground Gallery has been transformed into a darkened maze of corridors and gallery spaces, displaying a selection of work that demonstrates the breadth and skill of Viola’s practice over the last 20 years.  Confronting the universal themes of life, death, love and spirituality, the works investigate the very essence of the human experience by immersing the audience in an emotively controlled environment of image and sound.

One of the exhibition’s particularly powerful installations, The Dreamers, contains a series of seven plasma screens each depicting individuals of various ages who are submerged underwater at the bottom of a stream bed.  Eyes closed, lying perfectly still, the sound of the water rippling over their bodies fills the room.  With only the occasional bubble rising from their otherwise ghostly being, they appear at peace, a sensation which, given the installation’s calming environment, is transferred to the viewer.

Premiering new work, The Trial, a woman and a man stand bare chested, each on separate screens.  Suddenly they are simultaneously doused with a succession of different coloured liquids – black, red, white and finally clean water – depicting the life cycle from birth to death, our transformation from darkness into light. Amazingly, Viola never uses special effects in any of his pieces, everything you see within his videos is physically happening to the individual.

The exhibition’s highlight is Viola’s powerful installation within the park’s 18th century Chapel.  Projecting Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) in a continuous loop on a floor-to-ceiling high screen perched on the church’s alter, it’s a duo of works which perfectly echo the space’s history, whilst speaking of the solidarity most religious people share in their chosen place of worship.

Viola’s work strips away the debris of everyday life, transporting the viewer back to the very core of their existence.  A must see exhibition in a must see venue, if you have never before visited the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, now is the time to do so.

Emma Sumner

Bill Viola, until 10 April 2016, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, Wakefield WF4 4LG.

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1. Bill Viola, Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005. Colour High-Definition video projection. Performer John Hay. All photos © Kira Perov, courtesy Bill Viola Studio.