Still from the video Fire Woman by Bill Viola. Copyright Kira Perov, courtesy of Bill Viola Studio.

Going underground with video star Viola

Work by a pioneer of video as an art form can be seen and heard at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

“The unseeable, the unknowable and the place between birth and death” are among the heavyweight subjects tackled by pioneering video artist Bill Viola in his current exhibition at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

It is Viola's biggest UK show of the past decade and features a startling new work, The Trial, in which a bare-chested young man and woman are doused in a succession of coloured liquids. As the film sequence proceeds, their reaction turns from shock through despair to fear, then relief and finally a sense of purification.

According to Viola, The Trial depicts “five stages of awakening through a series of violent transformations” and is typical of his work which attempts to give visual expression to internal psychological and metaphysical experiences.

This installation can be seen in the YSP's Underground Gallery, as can three works from his series Transfigurations, namely The Return and The Innocents (both 2007) in which an unseen wall of water represents the boundary between life and death, and Three Women (2008).

The latter video uses grainy analogue footage from a CCTV camera alongside state-of-the-art high definition images to show a mother and her two daughters moving from obscurity to clarity – representing death and life – and back again across an invisible threshold between the two.

In all, there are eight installations in the Underground Gallery, while over at the YSP Chapel can be seen two more: Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), both from 2005.

Three Women (2008). Copyright Kira Perov, courtesy of Bill Viola Studio.

Both are based on the universal story of two lovers in the throes of a passion which is blind to all rules and social mores of this world and can only be properly consummated after death.

They were originally created as part of a much longer film to accompany a production of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde and continue Viola's exploration of the concepts of mortality and transcendence.

Bill Viola was born in 1951 and, since the 1970s, has been tackling demanding and thought-provoking issues of human emotions and

Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) (2005). Copyright Kira Perov, courtesy of Bill Viola Studio.

experiences. He has played a fundamental role in the establishment of video as a respected art from, creating installations which engage the viewer's visual and aural senses to impressive – and occasionally unnerving – effect.

Described by one critic as “the Rembrandt of the video age”, Viola says his fascination with his regular subject matter began when, as a six-year-old, he dived off a raft without any flotation aid and sunk straight to the bottom of a lake.

There, he recalled: “I saw probably the most beautiful image I have ever seen in my life, which was a blue world, filled with things moving, little things on the bottom. I saw these beautiful shafts of light. I wanted to stay there.

My uncle realised I was down there and then I started pushing him away. Finally, he grabbed me and pulled me out. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be here.

“The thing that happened was so brief, but it stuck right in, deep inside me. It was really quite powerful.”

The exhibition runs until 10 April: go to for more information.

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