Bill Viola

Flushing, New York United States 1951, lives and works in Los Angeles

Together with artists such as Bruce Nauman, Gary Hill and the somewhat younger Tony Oursler, Bill Viola has brought the medium of video to a state of maturity. Particularly in recent years Viola has proven himself to be a master of this medium, which is about as old as he is himself.

Video works such as Hall of Whispers, and Nantes Triptych show how far the video has developed beyond the stage of registration. Nowadays the image is manipulated with the aid of a computer. It can be repeated, decelerated, accelerated and blurred to one’s liking. Video art is no longer a separate domain but overlaps and interacts with other realms: the computer, film, photography.

The Greeting is a ten minute video that shows an encounter which actually lasted only forty-five seconds. Due to the extremely slow motion, the ordinary character of the event suddenly becomes unusual and fraught with meaning. Two women in an alleyway are talking with each other. The conversation is suddenly interrupted when the older of the two appears to be pleasantly surprised; a young woman in a bright orange dress approaches, and they embrace. The woman in the center, who is almost kept out of this for a moment, is the key figure around whom Viola builds the image of the communication. The slow motion causes every gesture and every emotion to be revealed in minute detail: from the gaping mouth of the older woman, the radiant eyes of the younger one, to the hesitation and the ‘excluded’ position of the onlooking woman.

Inspiration for The Greeting was taken from a sixteenth-century painting by Jacopo da Pontormo. Its theme, the visitation, i.e. the moment at which Mary tells Elizabeth that she is expecting a child, was painted in a very poignant manner – as though the suffering of Christ could already be read in the glances being exchanged by the two women. In the oeuvre of Pontormo, this work has special significance. The artist used every conceivable tactic – the stylistic play of exaggerations and distortions that distinguish mannerism – in order to make the knowing gaze as intense as possible.

This exchange of gestures and emotions, by which words become superfluous, must have struck Viola on contemplating the painting by Pontormo. Viola has often shown an interest in penetrating the depths of the human soul and in putting mind and body to the test. What makes The Greeting so special is, furthermore, its clear relationship to a very classical art form, namely painting. The work conveys a statement about the relationship between the static and the moving image – and in doing so makes a statement about one of the most important developments in the twentieth century. Whereas Pontormo was forced to capture the meeting in a single moment, Bill Viola was able, due to the camera, to spread the experience over a period of ten minutes. The result is a monumental masterpiece of this age.

listen to interview with Bill Viola on BBC radio

Bill Viola discusses the process of creating The Greeting (SFMoMa)

short clip from The Greeting