Regaining a child's emotion

Submitted by on 6 November, 2003 - 12:00

The Passions, an exhibition by Bill Viola, National Gallery, London

The Passions is not all about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but it does take some of its inspiration from the iconography of early Christian religious art. Its subject is the nature of human emotion. Viola started the work in 2000 when his father was dying of cancer and this, according to the artist, accounts for the grief and sorrow in the work.

Viola is a video artist. He makes big and small screens, usually using simple images, mostly of human beings. He is something of a religion-inspired artist - eclectic, as you'd perhaps expect of a Californian ... a bit of Zen Buddism, and a bit of the mystical from Islam and Christianity too. But it is not overstated in the art, and so that element is tolerable for even a rampant atheist like me.

But I really like a lot of the early Christian art in the National Gallery. The formal composition of that art directly inspires some of the work in Viola's exhibition. It is the age of these paintings as much as anything that moves me: the background landscapes of a Europe that was almost wild, the bright blues and greens of the paints ... Viola's use of colours and the simplicity of his work echo the earlier art. His themes are the big universal (if not unchanging) ones: birth, life, death ... what it means to be human.

I went to see The Passions because last summer I saw another exhibition by Viola (still showing at the Tate Modern) - the Five Angels for the Millennium. That exhibition - five huge video projections of human forms moving in and out of water, all in slow motion - was one of the most visually stunning things I have ever seen. Again in The Passions we see human beings in slow motion, but here it is the faces in focus as they experience sorrow (in the main), but also loss, joy, acute anguish.

Outside the Passions exhibition is Six Heads, a work which depicts the human face's emotional gamut - joy, sorrow, anger, fear, disgust, astonishment. Going through the exhibition I thought about this work a lot.

Facial expression is a subtle and complex human language. Most sighted children learn to read the human face in the first stage of their life. They may learn the form of an emotion before they understand its content. But the need to mirror another's emotion continues long past babyhood - children will often join in when they see someone else's tears or laughter. In adults the compulsion to do that is dulled. I thought Bill Viola wanted us to regain this childish compulsion to mirror another's emotion. Forcing us to view emotion, every single nuance of emotion, unfolding very slowly right under our noses, might just get us to feel a bit more, empathise a bit more.

I think Viola is a clever, thoughtful and subtle artist and, for all his stated mystical influences, a very relevant one. If the ticket price (£7/£5) puts you off this exhibition, go and see a free Viola exhibition at the Tate Modern.
Score: 8/10
Reviewer: Rosalind Robson

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