Bill Viola’s Tiny Deaths is a haunting, exhilarating video installation that, if you’re at the Tate Modern, is well worth immersing yourself in.
The small room set aside for this installation is as close to pitch black as I imagine Health and Safety will allow. And projected on to three walls surrounding you are video clips of seemingly blurred static energy from which barely visible bleached-white figures appear and then melt away.
And there’s also sound – white noise mixed with inanimate sounds that could be voices but you’re not sure.
All together, the darkened space, the sudden apparitions and the accentuated sound make for an incredibly dramatic mix. I found it incredibly spiritual, as if I was briefly in a space between the physical world and an afterlife.
“The struggle we are witnessing today is not between conflicting moral beliefs”, Bill said in 1992. “It is between our inner and our outer lives, and our bodies are the area where this belief is being played out.”
His works from the 1990s consistently show the body as the site for physical transformations – often through immersion in light or water – that embody these profound concerns with transformation and mortality.
I emphasise, the room is dark, really dark. So dark in fact that even though I stood at the far end in an almost empty room, another person did walk into me as her eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness. I say this not just to emphasise the excitement that comes from the darkness – as if this is a scary ride – but also because if you are claustrophobic, this might not be for you.
Viola is a pioneer of video art, and has been one of its most important practitioners for more than forty years. Characteristic qualities of his work, such as the interplay between movement and stasis, and the testing of the viewer’s perception through multiple sensations, have become recurring elements of the medium as a whole.
Bill Viola has lent this piece to the Tate Modern and its special display coincides with the installation of a new work from him in St Paul’s Cathedral entitled Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water).
Although I found Tiny Deaths quite spiritual, this new work at St Paul’s apparently addresses spiritual themes more directly. Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) is soon to be accompanied by the related work Mary, in which Bill is using his command of contemporary technology to engage enduring questions of belief.
If Tiny Deaths is anything to go by, I can’t wait to see these new works.
Tate Modern, London
Bill Viola, stills from Tiny Deaths 1993 Video, 3 projections, black and white and sound, Lent by the artist, 2014 © Bill Viola