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Analyse the sense of ‘spirituality’ and ‘aura’ that is so often attributed to the work of Bill Viola. In what does it consist, and why are contemporary audiences so attracted to it? You must analyse two (2) specific works in order to support your argument Essay Example


Bill Viola has got world recognition as a figure in video art. Contemporary scholars still believe that he is the most influential artist working on video. With tapes of aural beauty and remarkable visual, technical virtuosity and poetic resonance, Viola can be said to have virtually defined the state of the art and for in so doing, has illuminated young artists at least a score of spirituality and aura. As a matter of fact, Mitchell (2007) noted that no serious center of video and or film studies in Japan and West that has not exhibited his work for the sake of sending the religion and aura messages in his work. If Viola is argued to be the most acclaimed video personality then it is because his work can be transcended in videos as such; it manages to represent a fundamental contribution to the larger domain of cinema in general. These are not only attributed to works such as The Passions or Emergence but majority of what he has brought to the industry. This is the point of departure in this essay; critically analyse sense of spirituality and aura that in most cases has been attributed to the works of Bill Viola.

Perhaps the reason why contemporary audiences are so attracted to Bill Viola is because he has learned the spirituality of mystics and poets that cut across Islamic Sufism and Zen Budhism and Christian mysticism. When he started with the video of The Passions there was contentment that through common threads of all the above spirituality, what we could see is merely the surface of reality. That is why David (2000) argues that through The Passions there is ambiguity in the experience of the spectator since he does not know whether Bill Viola’s character is posing for him or whether what he sees is the actual feeling between a deep emotional intimacy and exhibitionism. But critics point that this is just how Bill Viola wants to present his work—something that has been admired for long (Mitchell, 2007). From the flow of the story, it can be quickly judged that Bill Viola was influenced, when preparing The Passions by the work of Ibn al-Arabi. To conceptualise this, he says, “…if you get caught by this surface, then you stay on the surface. Your sight is inaccurate; the senses convey misleading information, one-dimensional translations. Rather than discarding these translations, the task is to understand and master sensory experience because you need the language of the senses to help decipher these surface distortions and penetrate through to the submerged connections underneath” (Bill, 2003. p. 32). These are the connotations that make his work succeed and get admired by contemporary audiences.

Conversely, another element of spirituality is manifested in The Passions when he shows the cycle of suffering which is actually endless but upon disappearance, releases an enlightenment which replaces fear and anger. But because the artist shows it as a cycle, suffering reappears as a temporary phenomenon. He even goes ahead to quote other spiritual leaders, specifically Titus Buckhardt, a scholar of Islam by saying “one of the fundamental condition of happiness is to know that everything one does has a meaning in eternity” (p. 46). Further proof to spirituality as presented in The Passions is when Bill Viola manages to create a very special piece in 2000 known as the Memoria where he remembers Veronica’s Veil.

It cannot be denied that some of the controversial aspects of ancient spiritual cinemas are still contested today. One of such controversies is the complications that come with expressing the sacred without touching on stereotypes. This is where Bill Viola succeeds in his aura and expression of spirituality. Basically he brings the superficiality of the sensation that manages to transform man’s divine into a spectacle that also seduces another spectator. This however, does not allow to think and interpret about what it is seen on the screen. The experience here is aura and less of spiritual in Mitchell (2007) view. But this is not true since in the moving image, the transcendental needs a silent space so as to express faith. This is so as a result of manifestation which is never partial but complete. That is, the atmosphere of spiritual moving image as depicted in Memoria in Bill Viola Passions can be termed as aura of the silence emanating from his art work.

To conclude on the aspect of spirituality as far as The Passions is concerned it is fascinating to see how the author makes film become an object of spiritual transformation. Carida (2004) analyses this work vis-à-vis the aspect of spirituality and posits that in the cinema intending to attract, there has been tendency for the image idolatry done through narrative. Perhaps the films the current generation is exposed to are not based on spiritual dogma. And since Bill Viola is expressing transcendental without actually representing it directly, is the reason why when people talk of spirituality, the author comes to the picture.

If someone is looking for a sense of aura, then Emergence presents this. As a matter of fact, the history has it that no video or film has used sound so intelligently, integrated so totally as it is done through Emergence. If his organization of sound image stream can be termed musical as Caridad (2004) believes then his approach to sound is even more so. Additionally, the senses of aura in this work integrate a lack of ideal music in the conventional sense but the author orchestrates and records ambient sound in a way that is profoundly musical. When other actors try to ensure there is background music and noise, for this work, there is foreground object or figure—something positive rather than negative space. This is not only what I find to be attractive to contemporary audiences but also how he seeks it deliberately and organizes it perfectly in accordance with musical categories such as rhythm, timbre and tone. What Viola achieves in this work as far as aura is concerned is to use sound and make it similar to what he manages to do with time through image manipulation.

Thomas Fuance wrote in one of his books that “medial actors and artists, as does Bill Viola, had strived over years to overcome complacency in issues of spiritual development, the piece of art that arouse heightened emotions which could then be harmonized in prayers by redemptive grace and for prayers” (Thomas, 2005 p. 28). This is exactly another aspect of spirituality as depicted in Emergence. Within the context of Thomas Fuance assertions, Viola manages to create his pieces with a similar sentiment in thought but at the same time attempting to engage the viewer. In fact, it is fascinating how Viola manages to make the video be an act of self-reflection while at the same time engaging another person. Interestingly, researchers such as Thomas (2005) look at this aspect different. He argues that, “it cannot be said that Viola manages to bring an aspect of spirituality as Thomas Fuance argues because in Emergence for instance, the art struggles to discover how to portray the depth of emotions people can experience and create a connection between and among them through the medium of video” (p. 102). This criticism is indeed not true. For instance, it is also within the same Emergence that Viola manages to recount that one of the paintings that he took much time on was the Bouts’ The Annunciation. In his interpretation, this painting means a conversation that transcends language—while steal talking about Mary becoming pregnant with the Christ child. If someone is interested in what consist of spirituality in this context, then this is done when Viola is mesmerized by specificity of Gabriel’s and Mary’s hand gestures especially when Gabriel points heavenward and ambiguity is the hands stretched by Mary. Viola transfers the two ideas to Emergence; he actually makes Emergence about what this assessment terms ‘poignant’ and wordless interaction existing between Viola, Mary and Gabriel and actions and symbols make a unique references at the same time embodying multifaceted meanings—this is how spirituality is manifested here.

Even more interesting is how Viola manages to integrate the aspect of spirituality and aura in one piece of work. Beginning with the former, Viola presents himself as an inspired fellow; this time by Masolino’s Pieta. Indeed Masolino has done that visually. Fresco of the Pieta by Masolino presents St. John and Mary putting dead Christ into the tomb. While this is the spiritual part of it, its visual representation of this that inspires many. He considers art as something which is more than just visual objects—something that have healing function and what people see on the screen is made to become part of life process.

A French Priest, Amédée Ayfre who died through road accident at a tender age studied the relationship between spirituality, aura and cinema (Thomas, 2005). He found two critical issues that can be related with what Bill Viola is trying to do. First, he suggested that sacred is that mysterious feeling that can burst and become natural order of the universe on a daily base. Secondly, integrating aura and spirituality in cinema is the situation where artists are able to make transcendental to be over the sacred and this become the frontier coming between the immanent and transcendental. This is where Bill Viola succeeds. He makes cinema through Emergence to express the sacred through its intended form. To be specific, what Bill Viola does in this work is to use discontinuity between sound and image so as to express how lonely human beings are, especially when it reaches beyond their conditions. Again if one wants to know what consists of this or rather why contemporary audiences find themselves attracted to his works then it is because the artist brings shot which are eloquently divided from the next one. Every shot is represented in a unique space, in absence of emotional connection with the next one. Actually when we see an end to the feeling of despair, the sound and image are newly synchronized.

Considering the short film by Mark Kidel about Bill Viola and Emergence there is imagery in the film. This is imagery that is ambiguous enough and at the same time contextualized in the Christian spiritual tradition. At careful view of this artistic piece, if we are familiar with the resurrection as postulated in the bible and with spiritual art as history has it, then audiences are made to read this piece as if it is a continuation of imagery described by Bill Viola as, “…the dead Christ figure and on the grief of the women surround him” (Thomas, 2005 p. 59). Bill Viola put this in the right context by arguing that themes of crucifixion and even the events leading to resurrection are not specific to Christian themes. In fact, when portrayed artistically, there is a striking of a universal emotional chord—something Caridad Svich says to be a work modeled basing on classical paintings and cinemas so as to rework Christian narratives and fusing this with aura so as to create spirit that can glimpse on the divine.


This assessment as extensively viewed two works of Bill Viola with an aim of analyzing the sense of spirituality and aura that has been attributed to his work including The Passions and Emergence as the two works chosen. The assessment has found that the main reason why contemporary audiences are attracted to his work is the ambiguity the two works manages to create as far as depth and life in the videos are concerned. Additionally the assessment realizes that the artist succeeds in articulating aura by failing to solidify meanings and at the same time referencing spirituality and symbols that are grounded in specificity. Lastly, it has been found that the attraction people have with the works are not merely based but rooted in the works’ vibrant colours, intimate size, extreme slow motion and universal themes that make the same audiences participate in the work and to linger.


Bill V. (2002), Bill Viola and Emergence [film] by Mark Kidel (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty

Trust, 2002.

Caridad, S. (2004), ‘A Process of Perception’: A Conversation with Bill Viola” in Contemporary

Theatre Review Volume 14(2), 2004, 73.

David, M. (2000),Spirit and Medium: The Video Art if Bill Viola” in Image: Art, Faith, Mystery

Issue 26, Spring 2000.

Mitchell, J., Plate Brent (eds.) (2007), The Religion and Film Reader, New York, Routledge

Thomas, F. (2005), ‘Nurturing Personal and Professional Conscience in an Age of Corporate Globalization: Bill Viola’s The PassionsThe Medical Journal of Australia, Volume 183 Number 14.