Life and death, time, water and spirituality
Viola’s work is characterised by its symbolism and references which are continuously repeated to express universal concepts such as life and death, spirituality, the passing of time, space and loneliness, with the artist evolving alongside them..
In his early work, Viola showed his interest in the idea of time, as we can see in ‘The Reflecting Pool’ (1977-79), in which he experimented with the disintegration of a figure diving into a pool in a forest where “time stands still, suspended by a series of actions which can only be seen reflected in the water” or ‘Incrementation’ (1996), a self-portrait in which all of Viola’s breaths are counted as he comes face to face with his own mortality. This fascination for time is also apparent in the sculpture ‘Heaven and Earth’ (1992), which juxtaposes life and death in the faces of an old lady and a newborn child.
Water is another element to which Viola repeatedly returns to symbolise purity, serenity, calm, redemption and peace. ‘Ablutions’ (2015) shows a slow-motion close-up of a man and a woman washing their hands in a purifying act, while ‘Self Portrait, Submerged’ (2013) depicts the artist lying in a stream with his eyes closed, in which water represents an essential element of life, change and the passing of time in its continuous ebb and flow, expressing the future, birth and reflection.
Inspiration from the art of the past, especially the Renaissance and the late Middle Ages, as well as the influence of spiritual traditions such as Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism call all be seen in Viola’s video installations. From the allusion to ecclesiastical altarpieces in ‘Catherine’s Room’, which represents five intimate moments in the day of a woman performing domestic activities to the four pieces that make up the series ‘Martyrs’ which come from a 2014 commission for Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, in which four screens show the struggle against the elements – earth, air, fire and water – in the face of the final acceptance of death. The four martyrs symbolise concepts such as action, strength, perseverance, resistance and sacrifice.