Bill Viola is one of the most famous video artists around, and has been since the early 1970s. His visually stunning works, among them a diptych entitled Union, focus on universal human experiences, the human body, divergent time structures, spirituality, and transcendence.
The Union diptych is part of a series called The Passions, in which Viola explores intense emotions such as suffering and ecstasy, endurance and release. Inspired by the traditional painting and sculpture of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, he translates his motifs into powerful contemporary aesthetics. Union consists of two flat screens placed side by side, showing a woman and a man contorting their bodies in their struggle to reach the source of the bright light overhead. Both are in a highly emotional state, but they experience this intensity in isolation, unaware of each other. When their physical and mental exertions reach their peak, they finally experience a kind of release. Their exhausted bodies relax, and their faces are full of amazement and wonder. The video shows the couple’s actions in ultra-slow motion, which is typical of many of Viola’s works. By extending a one-minute performance to eight minutes, the artist exposes subtle nuances in the two figures’ expressions that would barely be perceptible in real time. This radical deceleration makes their emotional states seem both ephemeral and eternal, and thus a universal metaphor of human existence.
In formal terms, the couple’s gestures and half-length representation are reminiscent of the inward gazes and body language of medieval devotional paintings, such as the Mourning Virgin, or Jesus as Man of Sorrows. Designed to arouse compassion like these historical images, Viola’s work aims to build an internal relationship with the viewer. Furthermore, his video’s visionary poetics impressively transcend our perception of the real world.