Representation of the invisible in the work of three contemporary artists – Part 1: Bill Viola

For the past few months my research has included looking at other artists whose work contains similar elements of content,  medium or process that I have been attempting to develop or aspire to.   I have been investigating a language of representation through photography, using symbolic and iconic representation.    I have been mediating this intention through the use of photo montage of found and self generated images. Here I would like to record an overview or ‘snapshot’of the work of three artists that are important to me Bill Viola, Sarah Charlesworth and Anne Ferren. An overview of their practices and more specifically what I have found that informs or has provided inspiration to my current thinking and practice.

US video artist Bill Viola tackles the big themes with his work; birth, death, love, ecstasy, anger, suffering, fear. His works explore what it means to be human, present in the world while holding the awarness that we are all on a journey through life with the knowledge that we will not live forever. In an interview with Rachel Spence (2014) he explained “the base of my work is the unknowing, doubt, loss of self, questions not answers”.

Viola uses video to explore the phenomena of sense perception as an avenue to self-knowledge. Using the inner language of subjective thoughts and collective memories, his videos communicate to a wide audience, allowing viewers to experience the work directly, and in their own personal way. Most often presentation of the work is on a large scale, which sets up for the viewer an immersive and overwhelming encounter.   Viola’s work draws from roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism.  Viola’s work facilitates the potential for a shift of perception, creates site and space for intersubjective exchange he grapples with faith and doubt, humanity and the divine.

His work Transfigurations is a good example of his pursuit of representation of the invisible and profound in that it addresses transformation of self along with the sense of another realm. The title, Transfigurations, refers to the moment when a person or an object is transformed not by external means but from within. Viola says “Transfiguration represents is the most important capacity of human beings to completely transform their inner selves, not just the outside. All revolutions or ideas start in the human heart inside and then they move out. That’s what you see happening in there with the people in these works,” he said. (Garcia, 2014) Transfigurations presents black and white images of ghostly figures which slowly emerge from total darkness through a threshold of water into a world of colour and light. The figures react with a range of emotions confusion, fear, anger and surprise and seem to want to linger. Eventually they pass back into the other realm.

For this work Viola’s uses a grainy analog video (from an old surveillance camera) to take some images and high definition for the rest. Then combines the two, to present to the viewer both obscurity and clarity and also the intersection where these two meet.

Matrys, his most recent work is another example of transformation but in this work transformation occurs through extreme bodily suffering.



BILL VIOLA-Anika, 2008; Color High-Definition video on LCD panel, 24.8 x 14 x 2.36 inches; 63 x 35.5 x 6 cm


two women

Bill Viola (2008) Two women (Transfigurations).


the Matrys

Bill Viola (2014) The Matyrs.

One thought on “Representation of the invisible in the work of three contemporary artists – Part 1: Bill Viola

  1. Interesting post Karen, Bill viola’s work seems very inline with some of your themes life and death and then what next…….. I am also interested in his use of technology especially where you mention that combination of low fi and hi fi (security camera and H.D. video) to merge or bring a sense of the invisible out. I would like to experience/see one of his works perhaps one day I will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s