HOD – Bill Viola’s “Fire Woman” and “Tristan’s Ascension”

Here I will be reviewing two artworks as they are both interconnected and the concept behind them are related to each other.

Fire Woman, 2005 and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005 are both a large-scale projection (larger than life itself) that is paired in time and placed in a darkened St Saviour’s church. Both these installations provide us, viewers, with mesmerising images of catharsis and ascension accompanied by resonating sound.  Viola makes use of the fluid, fleeting nature of moving images behind videos as a means to explore life and death.

Image obtained from http://www.theblogazine.com/2014/03/bill-viola-a-soul-keeper/


Both these hot and cool artworks originated in the ‘Tristan und Isolde’ opera in 2005 that he collaborated with Richard Wagner, where he created the video-sets. It was about a tragic love story about two people who were meant to be together but could not consummate their love on Earth, hence had to leave their bodies to do so and meet each other in the afterlife. Viola drew out the material from this opera to create the above individual artworks. [you can view the trailer of the ‘Tristan und Isolde’ opera that Viola collaborated with to have a better look at the ‘material’ he drew out for his works at the very end]

Hence why there is a theme of life and death present in his artworks of the Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension. Out of the four primordial elements (air, water, fire, earth), Viola uses primarily fire and water as part of his exploration of the spiritual theme. They are the essential key factors for his works as it easily contributes to the emotional involvement of the audience (immersion). With one look into both videos (shown above), it is surreal and dreamlike but at the same time, they seem at once contemporary and timeless. It is like a reflection of human experiences – how we think of dreams, nightmares, and reality, of what’s to come afterlife or perhaps for the people that almost experienced death or already did but got brought back to life.

Fire Woman depicts ‘an image seen in the mind’s eye of a dying man’, while Tristan’s Ascension portrays ‘the ascent of the soul in the space after death’. Viola drew their inspiration from elemental transformations described in ‘The Tibetan Book of The Dead’.  It is a book that “acts as a guide for the dead during the state that intervenes in death and the next rebirth”. The actual title is also known as ‘The Bardo Thodol’ where ‘Bardo’ (in Tibetan Buddhism) means a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death. This guide is recited to a recently deceased person, while they are in the state between death and reincarnation, in order for them to recognize the nature of their mind and attain liberation from the cycle of rebirth. We see those elements especially in these artworks of Bill Viola.

[Description of artworks]:

Fire Woman – the image of a silhouetted woman standing in front of a wall of flames. She walks forward towards us viewers, raises her arms in what looks like a Christ sign and falls. We as viewers didn’t realise it until then that she was falling into a pool of water. And that what we are seeing is “a reflection in a surface of a pool and that the entire image is a reflection, including the fire”. It is astonishingly amazing how he makes use of video technology to manipulate us into thinking it’s real. So the entire time it was a question of what’s real and what’s not. In this case, the fire wasn’t real and it was all just a reflection. You can see this from what goes on after the fall – she falls into her own reflection and disappears below the surface, the flame dies down and the flame turns into this beautiful cooling-blue space. (as seen below)

Image obtained from http://www.guiding-architects.net/bill-viola-hamburg-monumental-installations/
Image obtained from https://artblart.com/tag/bill-viola-fire-woman/
Image obtained from http://lesmerveillesdedanielle.blogspot.com/2014/03/bill-viola-au-grand-palais.html

Tristan’s Ascension – the image of a man lying on a slab, and we as the viewers, don’t know if he’s dead but he is portrayed as he is. Little water droplets appear and we realise that it’s floating, soon the amount of the water increases dramatically. We see the man come to life by the force of water. As the water goes up, he goes up as well and we do not see his body anymore – like as if he has descended to heaven. (as seen below)

Image obtained from http://www.guiding-architects.net/bill-viola-hamburg-monumental-installations/
Image obtained from https://artblart.com/tag/bill-viola-fire-woman/

(The above trailer is obtained from https://www.operadeparis.fr/en/season-18-19/opera/tristan-und-isolde)


“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.” – Text from the Melbourne International Arts Festival website






Bill Viola’s Moving Void





Interactive Media I – Singapore Night Festival (Research Critique)

Interactive artwork 1:


Image obtained by https://www.nightfestival.sg/nightlights/detail/aquatic-dream-by-auditoire-and-lekker-architects

Stepping into the site and immediately hearing the ambient ocean sound, it pulls you further into the artwork itself.  It’s mesmerising as you soak yourself in what feels like an underwater world, having a glimpse of life under the sea. The blue and purple hue present in the aquamarine set-up complete with a school of koi and jellyfishes hanging on top, the flying thin plastics of what resembles the seaweed and glittering corals — it further contributes to the artwork itself and makes the audience want to fully immerse in it and never leave. Playing with the illuminating ocean colours (blue, purple, orange for the koi) and ocean sounds (like the things you hear in the movie Finding Nemo where whales make sounds) does make you feel like you are in a dream under the sea. This work truly lives up to its name, an Aquatic Dream it is. 

Though, there are some things I feel that could make it better:

  • The glittering corals could have made the audiences more immersed if it circles them. Instead of just one machine installed for the breeze effect and waiting for the wind to naturally blow it, why not have 4 circling it? I think it’ll be beautiful to have it surrounding and dancing around the participants. Similarly with the bubbles. A larger amount of koi fishes above us as well so we could really feel like we are under the sea, instead of it looking merely like an artwork. If you look at the artwork, there’s a distinct barrier between the corals and koi and it felt off. I feel like if you want the audience to participate and feel fully immersed, everything should be balanced together and surrounding them.
  • I would have enjoyed the artwork even more if we, as the audience, could step into one part of the installation where there’s glass surface on the floor and actually experience being in the middle of everything surrounding us.

By far I still think this is my favourite out of the rest of the artwork/installations I have been to.

Interactive artwork 2:


Image obtained by https://www.nightfestival.sg/nightlights/detail/odyssey-by-arnaud-pottier-and-timothee-mironneau-wb-show-fr

INTENSE. There was soft and slow music at the start and didn’t provide us with many projections of interesting visual effects that fully captures your attention UNTIL the music escalated. In the middle part, the music (which, I found out from one of the creators behind this, was created by them as well) got into a climax and it has wonderful space vibes as it goes along with the visuals of time and space (out in the cosmos filled with stars and planets). You get to explore the galactic wonders of the universe. That truly brought me into an immersive journey. It’s amazing to see it being projected against the Singapore Art museum walls. Makes you think how amazing what the prism of light could do. They also play with the speed of the visuals and that makes you feel like you are zooming in and travelling in time, going deep into the cosmos. It’s interesting how here, you don’t need to physically move around to experience this interactive artwork, as the visuals and lights and sounds (multi-sensory environment) have successfully managed to get everyone seated and immersed.

I like it a lot because of the concept of projection mapping, where “similar to video mapping and spatial augmented reality, is a projection technology used to turn objects, often irregularly shaped, into a display surface for video projection.” Because it is not on a flat screen and projected elsewhere on a 3D object, that makes the artwork more interesting. It shows how light can be mapped onto any surface and be made into an interactive display.

This was my first Singapore Night Festival experience. Overall, it’s amazing to see these interactive works, some I wish to make in the future!


HOD – Artist Selection: Bill Viola

About Bill Viola

Image obtained from https://unpointculture.com/2014/03/12/sculptez-du-temps-bill-viola-sexpose-au-grand-palais/
Image obtained from https://hyperallergic.com/114411/bill-violas-moving-void/
Image obtained from https://www.apollo-magazine.com/bill-viola-grand-palais/

Bill Viola is one of the pioneers of video art or referred to as “the Rembrandt of the video age”. His works of art are in large-scale, often includes a spiritual element in them as well. Topics like “Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism underpinning themes considered universal: birth, death, love, sex, grief, and redemption” revolves around his works. He makes use of this technological advancement in this day and age to do experimental video art (with a blend of sound in them, including avant-garde music performance) and create over 150 works over the last 40 years. He ensures that the installations of his video art are placed in an environment that is highly immersive for the viewers so as to fully engage with the works.




Intro to Interactive Media I – Research Critique

Diving into all-time fave generative art by the famous contemporary video artist: Bill Viola

“The Passing” by Bill Viola.

Viola, placed at the centre of this personal exploration of altered time and space, represents his mortality in such forms as a glistening newborn baby, his deceased mother, and the artist himself, floating, submerged under water.


“Tristan’s Ascension”

When video art becomes life, death and transcendence

Looking into both these video art, a generative art in a way, they are similar in making us audiences feel immersed into the art, in a deep sense. We feel spiritually inclined or touched by the artworks.

We, our souls, feel deeply about it. He uses a total environment that envelops us, viewers, in images and sounds. The slow movement of water for example, and the droplets of sounds, the blackout room, and just you – to really get us involved, emotionally and I guess mentally.

“Everything in this room right now comes from somewhere else and is just passing through us at this moment and it will continue to live and grow. Ultimately we all come from the stars; our earth, our world, our bodies, our bones, mosquitoes are made from the stuff of the stars, literally, and it just keeps getting reconfigured. It’s a profound and very moving thing. ” Bill Viola Interview with ‘The Spirit of Things’–Radio National–Australia)


Do you think it’s important, as a viewer and also a creator, that we feel something so powerful, or at least feel something, after entering the interactive artwork?

That’s something to think about. But my answer to this, for sure, is a yes – it is highly important. You would want your viewers to be fully engaged with your work that when they leave that environment of the work, they leave with strong emotions, or thoughts.