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Exposició: Bill Viola: The Passions

Madrid, 4 February 2005

Sadness, anger, pain, happiness. Down through time, many artists have faced up to the difficult task of having art capture the complexity of human emotions. Bill Viola (New York, 1951), one of the leading pioneers of video-art, faces this enduring challenge in the history of art in his series The Passions, and he does so in a unique way. Private and silent, the pieces making up the exhibition faithfully portray the emotional states and feeling and thought changes experienced by the main characters of his videos. In order to put together this exhibition, Viola focussed particularly on study of the mediaeval and Renaissance painters, and particularly on their ability to convey emotions in religious painting. Many of the thirteen video-installations that make up The Passions — shown on flat digital screens hanging from the walls like paintings —accordingly take inspiration in 15th- and 16th-century paintings such as Observance (2002), which is based on The Four Apostles (c. 1526) by Albrecht Dürer, or Emergence (2002), based on the Piety by Masolino (1424). Viola thus lends his daily scenes a mystical, spiritual dimension.

The exhibition on Bill Viola’s The Passions series, organised by the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles and curated by John Walsh, emeritus director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, can be seen from 4 February to 15 May 2005 at ”la Caixa” Foundation’s Exhibition Hall in Madrid (C/ Serrano, 60).

Bill Viola is one of contemporary art’s outstanding video-installation creators. Having earlier tackled some of the themes that have characterised his career (perception, memory and awareness), in The Passions he turns his attention towards portraying the emotions. He concentrates on conveying precisely the energy and complexity of the emotions transmitted by the faces and bodies of the characters portrayed.

Viola took part in the Getty Research Institute’s 1997-1998 educational programme, under the chosen theme of Representing the Passions. Those who attended the courses studied how the most intense emotions had been portrayed and classified in the past, this being one of the most frequently recurring themes in the history of art and drama. Viola not only immersed himself in the literature but also frequented the Getty Museum galleries in order to examine the paintings in the collection. He later began himself to create new works inspired in religious paintings from the mediaeval and Renaissance periods. This new series, entitled The Passions (2000-2002), is the one presented at ”la Caixa” Foundation’s Exhibition Gallery in Madrid.

In The Passions, the North American artist conveys in very-high-resolution images and with full mastery of digital technology the themes of some of the great masters of mediaeval and Renaissance painting. As with most of his production, the works comprising this collection call for a specific and closely studied setting. His works aim to envelop the spectator, not through image alone but also through sound, creating an ambience in which the spectator can interact with the work. Many of his “passions” are presented on digital flat-screen monitors with the intention of evoking late-medieval religious tableaux. By using devices such as slowing down of frames, video allows Viola to depict with greater intensity the changing expressions and prolonged concern etched on faces and bodies. Viola lays down a basic language for formulating grief, anguish, uncertainty, remembering or surprise — a grammar of the emotions that calls upon and attracts the spectator. The main characters are shown in their everyday clothes, as if suggesting that the Bible’s extreme passions can arise among any of us.

With this exhibition, ”la Caixa” Foundation presents twelve key works from the series The Passions, including the one commissioned by the Getty Museum, Emergence (2002). This piece is based on a fresco painting of the Piety by the 15th-century Italian artist Masolino, who portrays Christ sideways-on in the sarcophagus, held up on either side by his mother and by Saint John. Emergence has two women sitting beside a well from which a pallid youth is emerging slowly. With great effort they draw him from the water and lay him down on the ground. Presented in high-definition video using slow replay, the work is of a dazzling clarity that reinforces the moving nature of the event. Another of the works from The Passions is Silent Mountain (2001), a study of the emergence and consequences of an explosive emotional outburst which is at the same time a vibrant visual record of the human capacity for withstanding pain and recovering. In Six Heads (2000), six different emotional states (joy, sorrow, anger, fear, awe and dream) are examined, portrayed by an actor on a single screen.

The exhibition also brings us The Quintet of the Astonished (2000), a commission from the National Gallery in London inspired in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting Christ Mocked. Once again, the extreme slow-motion projection brings out the tiniest details and the most subtle nuances of expression of the work’s five leading characters, creating a subjective, psychological space in which time is suspended for both actors and spectators.

On a formal level, Viola sometimes adopts the diptych format. He uses hinges to connect two plasma screens to each other, presenting them as if they were a book, as in Dolorosa (2000) and The Locked Garden (2000). The first of these two works is an evocation of the universal human condition of suffering based on two images, one of a man and the other of a woman, presented on flat digital screens. The observer sees these two people, united though separated, as they suffer the agonies of extreme sadness and as tears run down their cheeks. Viola also arranges the screens vertically, mounted one on top of another, to create an effect of anguish-inspiring reciprocity. A good example of this is Surrender (2001).

The exhibition is completed with the works Anima (2000), a study of four primary emotions: happiness, sadness, anger and fear; Man of Sorrows (2001), a portrayal of an individual’s encounter with grief and loss; Four Hands (2001), Catherine’s room (2001) and Observance (2002). At the artist’s own initiative, the exhibition also includes the work The Crossing (1996), a large-scale audio and video installation depicting the disappearance of the human figure under the action of two opposing forces: water and fire.

Curated by the emeritus director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, John Walsh, the exhibition was first displayed at that institution, from which it travelled to the National Gallery in London.

Bill Viola: The Passions
4 February to 15 May 2005

Opening: Friday, 4 February 2005 at 8.00 p.m.

Place: ”la Caixa” Foundation’s Exhibition Hall
C/ Serrano, 60. Madrid

Opening hours: Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sundays and bank holidays, 11 a.m. to 2.30 p.m.; Tuesdays closed.

Entry free of charge

www.fundacio.lacaixa.es

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