Spirituality in the Work of Bill Viola

The temporality of human life is one of the most fundamental concerns that has permeated across centuries. From artists to scientists, humans are equally fascinated and terrified by the fragility of life and will continue to seek answers to these universal spiritual questions. The work of American video artist Bill Viola unravels the human condition and the bodily experience in poignant ways, confronting and moving audiences simultaneously. The magnitude of his works’ conceptual themes, visual impact, and emotional power have a visceral affect over audiences in a way that few other artists are capable of. Viola’s ability to convey emotions, rather than simply represent them, is striking and audiences across the world continue to seek the spiritual and contemplative environments he creates.

Bill Viola was born in New York in 1951 and is widely regarded as one of the most significant pioneers of video art (Baker 2014). His multisensory, visceral artworks explore ‘spirituality’ through concepts concerning human consciousness and existence. Viola’s practice is founded on the belief that an acute awareness of death is bound up in the human condition (’Bill Viola: Venice Biennale 2007,’ 2007). These complex themes evolved from a near-death experience at the age of six when Viola fell into a lake and saw “the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen … a kind of paradise” (’Bill Viola: Cameras are Keepers of the Soul,’ 2011), shattering his understanding of the world and highlighting the importance of what lies below the surface of consciousness. Powerful imagery and recurring motifs of water, drowning, and rebirth convey his fascination with the human condition and the dualities that accompany it: birth and death, materiality and essence, light and dark, presence and absence, old and new.

Viola draws upon a multitude of spiritual beliefs in his exploration of the human condition. From Christian mysticism, Zen Buddhism, and Islamic Sufism, the influence of religion is evident in his reflective, meditative oeuvre. He believes in the unifying power of religion and the significant role of art in this relationship (’Bill Viola: Tiny Deaths at Tate Modern,’ 2014). His works allude to religious rituals and scenes, including baptisms and resurrection, and many of his poetic titles evoke emotions that accompany theology and mythology. However, while his artworks are deeply spiritual, they are not religious in nature. Viola does not proselytise any beliefs or doctrine through his practice, nor does he attempt to depict a divinity or afterlife. Rather, he focusses on spirituality through the significance of humanity’s place in the world, with his videos acting as “allegorical representations of human experience” (Jean-Paul Stonard, cited in Arya, 2012). The transcendental power of Viola’s works lies in their transformative ability to shift the audience’s perceptions of their own everyday worlds. He comments, “Part of our nature as human beings is a spiritual dimension, not simply the expression of religion … It is really one of the properties or basic principles of human beings” (’Five Angels by Bill Viola,’ 2009), subverting traditional understanding of the spiritual and placing its power within the quotidian life of the audience.

One of Viola’s most notable and poignant artworks is ‘Nantes Triptych’ (1992). The eschatological work epitomises his “metaphysical quest” to capture the human condition (Antonella Pelizzari 1996, p. 24). Viola draws upon the traditional triptych from medieval, Renaissance, and religious artworks to depict the three stages of life. The left screen plays a video of a woman giving birth, paired in stark contrast with the scene of Viola’s dying mother on the right. The central panel, traditionally a depiction of Jesus, is of a clothed man in water. The extreme slow motion renders it almost impossible to distinguish whether the figure is floating or drowning, highlighting the fragility of life as a delicate incident between birth and death (Simone 2011). The paradoxical power of water – to both give and take life – and the juxtaposition of old and new modes of visual communication are recurring dualities in Viola’s works. Initially, the conflicting emotions associated with birth and death separate the three panels. However, the repetitive soundtrack of crying, breathing, and ambient noise modulates and unifies the three extreme experiences, reframing “the cycle of existence, where death is not viewed as a state that occurs at the end of life but is inherent within its very condition” (Arya 2013). The audience is confronted with their own mortality, and Viola challenges their relationship with their sense of self and place, thus repositioning the audience as the subject.

Spirituality and its dualities are also evident in Viola’s striking work for the Venice Biennale ‘Ocean Without a Shore’ (2007). Mounted on the altars in the Church of San Gallo, a small 16th-century chapel, this video work similarly explores the threshold between life and death, and old and new. Altars act as a place for the living and the dead to connect with one another, and Viola bases his work on this powerful symbolism. Three vertical screens display black and white, grainy videos of people emerging from the darkness, walking slowly towards the audience. Passing through a threshold, they glow and transform into high definition, colour images, representing a return to the world from the dead and creating “an intense moment of infinite feeling and acute physical awareness” (La Biennale di Venezia 2007). The iridescent threshold is a wall of water that remains completely transparent until disturbed, representing the portal between the living and the dead. The conflicting properties of water, being both powerful and fragile, with the ability to both save and destroy, heighten both the spiritual and visual impact of the artwork. Viola notes, “The borderline between life and death is actually not a hard wall, it’s not to be opened with a lock and key. It’s actually very fragile, very tenuous. You can cross it in an instant” (’Bill Viola: Venice Biennale 2007,’ 2007). Simultaneously, the superimposition of the footage from old surveillance cameras and high definition colour video cameras highlights the duality of historic and modern. This is further emphasised by the juxtaposition of plasma screens installed in a 400-year-old church. Viola examines spirituality through the study of the human condition and finitude of the bodily experience. Viewers are reminded of their temporality through the study of life and death, old and new, and their relationship with their own existence.

Bill Viola successfully creates immersive artworks that extend into the space which they occupy. They work on multiple levels to engage audiences’ emotions and psyches. The large-scale installations, mesmerising visuals, dark surroundings, and ambient soundtrack combine to establish “a rare, unobstructive, and meditative setting for the public viewing of art” (Young 1997, p. 66). This immersive and all-encompassing experience is what Walter Benjamin calls the ‘aura’. He defines the aura as the intangible presence of an artwork, one that transcends its visual qualities (Benjamin 2008). Interestingly, he believed in the detrimental effect of technological reproduction on the aura, asserting that with each facsimile, a part of the original was lost. However, in the case of Viola’s practice, technology is an essential and intrinsic component of the artworks, and thus, the aura. Viola’s interest in spirituality extends into the space surrounding his video works, establishing contemplative and emotional environments for the audience. Professor Christopher Townsend calls Viola’s practice “an art of affect” (2004, p. 8), that is, the art of the aura. Rather than representing a sensation, Viola encourages the audience to feel what it is to be alive, eliciting passionate responses and allowing for participation. These reactions are not solely in response to the emotional subject matter but are also due to the intense presence of the aura.

The aura and power of Viola’s “filmic paintings” (Young 1997, p. 71) lies in their deeply spiritual nature, the environment they create, and the responses they generate.Nantes Triptych’s confronting and highly emotional message allows its aura to be completely felt by the audience. The reality of their bodily immanence pushes viewers to the limits of their “emotional, cognitive and linguistic experience” (Arya 2013), creating a potent, all-encompassing encounter that supersedes merely looking at the artwork. Viewers are implicated in the narrative, transforming them into active participants. The linearity of birth, life, and death becomes theirs, penetrating the barrier between object and observer and redefining these traditional relationships. Similarly, ‘Ocean Without a Shore’ was designed to function in a small, intimate, spiritual space, reinforcing the impact of its visuals and message. The dark surroundings focus the audience’s attention solely on the screens, allowing for complete absorption and for the full hypnotic power of the work to be felt. Thus, in order for the complete transformative power of Viola’s works to be felt, they must be experienced in the flesh. Their auras cannot be captured through replication. Rather, they are designed to be witnessed and absorbed, challenging the traditional role of audiences and allowing them to become part of the experience and thus, part of the artwork.

The complex and universal themes of Viola’s works continue to attract contemporary audiences. The combination of ever-changing technology, pervasive questions concerning the human condition, and the highly emotive and spiritual reactions they induce make these video works irresistible. Viola recognises the power of modern technology and utilises it to “delve into the most ancient concerns” (Temin 1996, p. 75). The hypnotic quality of the television screen draws the audience in, but the glow of blue light is soon overpowered by the mesmerising imagery and the spiritual, contemplative environment he creates. His exploration of universal human experiences and its fundamental questions allow for an open-ended dialogue with any audience, creating an accessible, introspective space. The works are deeply personal yet resonate with audiences across the world, evoking intense emotional responses that are rare in modern art (Townsend 2004, p. 8). Viola believes that “going too far” allows for extreme emotions to be processed (Hoffman 2012, p. 169) rather than to be paralysing, and his rich works provide spaces in which audiences are simultaneously reminded of their temporality and that their experiences are universal.

Bill Viola’s poignant explorations of the human condition transcend borders and connect with audiences across the world. His examination of the bodily experience and its perimeters feeds humanity’s fascination with the most fundamental questions in relation to existence. Juxtaposing modern technology with these ancient debates, he unravels the human condition, establishing spiritual connections between audience and artwork. He creates contemplative realms within art galleries that extend beyond the edges of the screen, allowing viewers to not just watch but experience his works and feel their aura. The magnitude of the works’ presence forces participation and personal involvement, dismantling traditional relationships between object and observer. There are few modern artists capable of eliciting such raw and deep emotional responses, and Viola’s mesmerising video works will continue to move and affect.


1. Antonella Pelizzari, M. 1996, ‘Writing on White Paper’, Performing Arts Journal, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 20-25.

2. Arya, R. 2012, ‘The Neglected Place of Religion in Contemporary Western Art’, Fieldwork in Religion, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 27-46.

3. Arya, R. 2013, ‘Bill Viola and the Sublime’, in The Art of the Sublime, eds. N. Llewellyn & C. Riding, Tate Research Publication, viewed 25 March 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/the-sublime/rina-arya-bill-viola-and-the-sublime-r1141441.

4. Baker, A. 2014, ‘Bill Viola’s ‘Ocean without a shore’’, Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, edition 48, viewed 26 March 2019, https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/essay/bill-violas-ocean-without-a-shore/.

5. Benjamin, W. 2008, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility’, in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, eds M. W. Jennings, B. Doherty & T. Y. Levin, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp. 19-55.

6. Bill Viola: Cameras are Keepers of the Souls 2011, interview, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, London, viewed 20 March 2019, https://vimeo.com/64302189.

7. Bill Viola: Tiny Deaths at Tate Modern 2014, interview, Tate, London, viewed 22 March 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/bill-viola-2333/bill-viola-tiny-deaths-tate-modern.

8. Bill Viola: Venice Biennale 2007 2007, interview, Tate, Venice, viewed 22 March 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/bill-viola-2333/bill-viola-venice-biennale-2007.

9. Burke, E. 1833, Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: with an Introductory Discourse Concerning Taste, W. & J. Neal, Baltimore.

10. Five Angels by Bill Viola: A Film by Ralph Goertz 2009, interview, Institut für Kunstdokumentation und Szenografie, Oberhausen, Germany, viewed 26 March 2019, https://vimeo.com/groups/2673/videos/3914185.

11. Freeland, C. 2004, ‘Piercing to Our Inaccessible, Inmost Parts’, in The Art of Bill Viola, ed. C. Townsend, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 24-45.

12. Hoffman, J. & Viola, B. 2012, ‘Q&A Bill Viola Video Maestro’, Nature, vol. 487, no. 7406, pp. 168-169.

13. Jasper, D. 2004, ‘Screening Angels’, in The Art of Bill Viola, ed. C. Townsend, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 180-195.

14. La Biennale di Venezia 2007, Bill Viola: Ocean Without a Shore, 2007, press release, viewed 26 March 2019, http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/img/pdf_press/146pdf2_HOV%20-%20Viola%20Exhibition%20Venice%20-%20Press%20Release%20-%20FINAL.pdf.

15. Manchester, E. 2000, ‘Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992’, Tate, viewed 26 March 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/viola-nantes-triptych-t06854.

16. Morley, S. 2010, ‘Introduction’, in The Sublime, ed. S. Morley, Whitechapel Gallery and MIT Press, London and Cambridge, pp. 12-21.

17. Shaw, P. 2006, The Sublime, Routledge, London.

18. Simone, A. 2011, Seeing Beauty: A Visual Exploration of Transformative Experience, PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

19. Temin, C. 1996, ‘Revealing ‘Buried Secrets’ Bill Viola uses video to explore life’s eternal questions’, Boston Globe (Pre-1997 Fulltext), 3 July, p. 75.

20. Townsend, C. 2004, ‘Introduction: Call Me Old-Fashioned, But…’, in The Art of Bill Viola, ed. C. Townsend, Thames & Hudson, London, pp. 6-23.

21. Viola, B. 1992, ‘On Transcending the Water Glass’, inCyberArts: Exploring Art and Technology, ed. L. Jacobson, Miller Freeman Inc., San Francisco, pp. 3-5.

22. Viola, B. 1995, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.

23. Wang, S. 2012, ‘Bill Viola: Unspoken at James Cohan Gallery Shanghai’, Cafa Art Info, viewed 26 March 2019, http://en.cafa.com.cn/bill-viola-unspoken-at-james-cohan-gallery-shanghai.html.

24. Xin, C. H. & Viola, B. 2013, ‘Transcendence and Transformation: Q+A with Bill Viola’, Art in America, 13 February, viewed 27 March 2019, https://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/interviews/bill-viola-moca-north-miami/.

25. Young, L. J. 1997, ‘The Elemental Sublime’, Performing Arts Journal, vol. 19, no. 3, pp. 65-71.

26. Youngblood, G. 1987, ‘The Source of the Images is Within: The Videotapes of Bill Viola’, MoMA,no. 45, pp. 2-3.

I respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land on which I work, learn and live – the Gadigal people of the Eora nation – and pay my respects to Elders past and present.

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