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Bill Viola: The Tristan Project - The Fall into Paradise, 2005 at Art Gallery of New South Wales
Bill Viola, The fall into paradise, 2005, video/sound installation, colour high-definition video projection; five channels of sound with subwoofer (5.1), screen size 320 x 427 cm - 9:58 minutes. Photo: Kira Perov.

SYDNEY.-Bill Viola is internationally recognised as one of the world’s leading contemporary artists. For over 35 years he has been at the forefront of developing the medium of video art as a vital form of contemporary art. Viola’s work focuses on universal human experiences of birth, death and the unfolding of consciousness. While it often draws on the conventions of Western art especially the Medieval and Renaissance periods, the work is informed by Viola’s involvement with the spiritual traditions of Zen Buddhism as well as his studies of Christian mysticism and Islamic Sufism. The spirituality of his work perfectly suits it for presentation in houses of worship; accordingly two of the works coming to Sydney will be installed at St Saviour's Church, Redfern.

Viola has expanded the content and historical reference points of video art, while he has simultaneously explored the technological potentials of the medium, breaking boundaries and pushing video to its limits.

Bill Viola and his wife and collaborator Kira Perov are coming to Sydney in early April at the invitation of Kaldor Art Projects, to present 3 major video works from The Tristan Project.

The installation works in the two exhibitions are derived from the four-hour long video that Bill Viola created for a new production of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, director, Peter Sellars. It was first presented as “The Tristan Project” in three separate acts in December 2004, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and went on to receive its fully staged premiere at the Paris Opera in April 2005. The video was produced by Bill Viola Studio (executive producer, Kira Perov) in collaboration with the National Opera, Paris; the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts (where “The Tristan Project” was presented in May, 2007 at the Avery Fisher Hall); and James Cohan Gallery, New York, and Haunch of Venison, London where the individual installations were first exhibited. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the opera in all three theatre venues.

The works will be on display at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and at St Saviour’s Church, Redfern. On Thursday 10 April at 2.30pm the Gallery presents Bill Viola in conversation with Edmund Capon at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is a free public event.

Bill Viola writes: Fire Woman is an image seen in the mind's eye of a dying man. The darkened silhouette of a female figure stands before a wall of flame. After several minutes, she moves forward, opens her arms, and falls into her own reflection. When the flames of passion and fever finally engulf the inner eye, and the realisation that desire's body will never again be met blinds the seer, the reflecting surface is shattered and collapses into its essential form-undulating wave patterns of pure light. Fire Woman is a projection installation with images displayed on a large vertically oriented screen. Five channels of surround sound fill the space.

Tristan's Ascension describes the ascent of the soul in the space after death as it is awakened and drawn up in a backwards flowing waterfall. The body of a man is seen lying on a stone slab in an empty concrete room. Small drips of water become visible as they leave the ground and fall upward into space. What starts as a light rain soon becomes a roaring deluge, and the cascading water jostles the man's limp body and soon brings him to life. His arms move of their own accord and his torso arches upward amidst the churning water. Finally, his entire body rises off the slab and is drawn up with the rushing water, disappearing above. The torrent of water gradually subsides and the drips decrease until only the empty slab remains, glistening on the wet ground. The image sequence is projected onto a tall, vertically oriented screen mounted on the wall. A specially configured 4.1 surround sound system arrays the sound in the vertical dimension of the space.

Many of Viola’s recent works are inspired by epic stories or Renaissance paintings; in this case he has turned to Celtic tales of love and death. The love of Tristan and Isolde was so spiritually profound that it was not possible for them to express it adequately through their material form and in the course of this work they drift out of this world ascending or ‘falling into paradise’.

The Fall into Paradise was recorded under water and the film has been slowed down creating a dreamlike atmosphere. At the start of the sequence a tiny dot of light appears in a black field suggesting cosmic origins. Slowly this dot grows still amorphous and looking more celestial than material. At last the dot resolves itself into the entwined bodies of two figures, Tristan and Isolde drifting slowly toward us until they suddenly crash through a previously invisible surface in a turbulent explosion of light and sound to float suspended as silhouettes on a luminous blue field. There, as the turbulence subsides, their dark bodies languidly float against a background of undulating wave patterns, illuminated by piercing rays of white light.

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