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





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