Bill Viola And The Art Of Contemplation – Revd Jonathan Evens

Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992.

In welcoming the Bill Viola installations at St Paul’s Cathedral, Mark Oakley noted that: ‘Viola’s art slows down our perceptions in order to deepen them.’ Viola’s works, which can be seen at the Royal Academy from 26 January alongside drawings by Michaelangelo, reveal the essentially contemplative nature of art and of the viewing of art.

The notion of time is central to Viola’s practice, and here he makes this explicit in the ages of the three people who occupy this film space.

Viola achieves this in part through his use of slow motion. He literally slows down the action in his films to also slow us down, bringing us into a state of contemplation. In writing of Viola’s ‘Three Women’, Giles Sutherland notes, ‘Viola has taken a fragment of HD film footage lasting no more than a few seconds and slowed it markedly.’

‘The notion of time is central to Viola’s practice, and here he makes this explicit in the ages of the three people who occupy this film space.’ The three women in the installation here ‘walk slowly and deliberately toward the viewer until they pass through an invisible screen of water,’ crossing the boundary ‘in order of age and experience, like a rite of passage, reborn in glistening technicolour.’ The women seem ‘unperturbed but slightly alienated by their new surroundings, observing and slowly turning to re-merge with the darkness’ in movements which ‘are considered and deliberate.’

Bill Viola Royal Academy
Bill Viola Royal Academy – Michelangelo Life Death Rebirth

The first thing to note about the art of contemplation is that it involves slowness. The average person looks at an artwork for fifteen to thirty seconds, and that brevity of looking is, of course, consonant with the pace of modern life generally. The majority of Americans say they would not wait in line longer than 15 minutes. 50% of mobile users abandon a page if it doesn’t load in 10 seconds. 3 out of 5 won’t return to that site. 1 in 4 people abandons a web page that takes more than 4 seconds to load. T-shirt slogans say, “I want instant gratification, and I want it now” and “Instant gratification takes too long.” The advertising slogan once used by the credit card Access – “take the waiting out of wanting” – illustrates how many people want to possess things the minute they decide they want them, whereas waiting is seen as passive and boring.

Slow Art Day is one way in which the Art world encourages waiting with art by lingering and looking. It is an annual global event, with hundreds of museums and galleries around the world participating, which has a simple mission, to help more people discover for themselves the joy of looking at and loving art. One day each year – April 6 in 2019 – people all over the world visit local museums and galleries to look at art slowly. Participants often look at five works of art for 10 minutes each and then meet together over lunch to talk about their experience.

Sutherland also notes that Viola pieces are often accompanied by sound, but in [the case of ‘Three Women’] the work is silent, linking it more directly to sculpture and painting.’ T. J. Clark has, with John Ruskin, pointed out the strength of the reality that ‘painting does not have anything to say’. By this he means that ‘a picture is not by its very nature ideology’s mute servant, and has at its disposal kinds of intensity and disclosure, kinds of persuasiveness and simplicity, that make most feats of language, by comparison, seem abstract, or anxiously assertive, or a mixture of both.’

For Clark, the advantages are twofold; ‘the ‘openness’ of the image can provide a space for the insubordinate, or at least the blessedly unserious’ and, by making concrete the indelible metaphors and images that ‘give overall shape to earthly existence’ and ‘have time take on a trajectory and destination,’ also makes these spellbinding, persuasive and imminent as never before.’

Such contemplative slowness, stillness and silence in front of an artwork enables true seeing through the paying of genuine attention. A well-known art historian who was once observed as he entered the first room of the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery went nose-to-nose with Leonardo’s ‘The Musician’, and there he stayed for about 10 minutes, rocking backwards and forwards, before moving from side-to-side, and then finally stepping back four paces and eyeing up the small painting from distance. And then he repeated the exercise. Twice.

George Pattinson has noted artworks open up a field of pure possibilities for us as viewers, a ‘potential’ space that invites our co-creativity: ‘the ‘space’ of the painting and the ‘space of the viewer are to blend into a common space, and it is in and out of this common space that the work of creation is to occur – but in the first instance, as waiting: not as waiting for a revelation of the meaning ‘in’ the painting, but as a waiting that is an opening to all that the painting potentially ‘is’.’

We respond to all that the artwork is in two ways that are illustrated by the actions of the art historian; by stepping back and getting a sense of the dimensions of the work – its height, width, breadth, depth – in order to grasp the big picture of its wholeness as the kind of entity or artefact this it is, and we get up close and personal to examine and explore the details of which the whole artwork is composed. After considering the artwork itself as an artefact, art historians or critics may then also reflect on the ideas and influences of the artist, the relationship that the artwork has with its historical and art historical context and their own response and that of others to the artwork.

By paying attention to art in this way, we start a conversation with the artwork which has two aspects. Firstly, we immerse ourselves in the world of the image. Joe Moran describes this as being like a swimmer who stops counting the number of pool laps they have done and just enjoys how their body feels and moves in water. As we immerse ourselves in the dimensions and details of the artwork, we come to enjoy and appreciate the world to which it introduces us.

Secondly, as viewers, we can enlarge the work by investing it with new meaning. Revd Alan Stewart has written: ‘An artist will, of course, set out to say something particular, but once their work becomes public it assumes its own life. Therefore each fresh encounter will produce a new conversation between the art and the viewer, resulting in a whole host of possible interpretations, none less valid than the other. Appropriating our own personal meaning from another person’s work doesn’t diminish it if anything it enlarges it. We might even want to say that in re-imagining and re-investing something with new meaning, we may in some cases redeem it or re-birth it.’

When we immerse ourselves in these ways in Viola’s works, it is possible to identify a sacramental element to his art because of the concern we find there with boundaries that its characters cross and re-cross, as do the women in ‘Three Women’. Sacraments create a connection between material objects, rituals and images and another reality that is beyond, in the sense of being more than the material but for which the object, ritual or image offers a limited but parallel container or form. Viola’s works use images in this way and often feature characters that cross from one dimension to the other and back again thereby participating in sacramental movement.

The artist David Jones expanded on this perception in writing of the Eucharist as being to do with the re-calling, re-presentation and remembering of an original act and objects in a form that is different from but connected to the original act or object that is being recalled. Remembering the Lord’s Supper is not simply recalling it to mind; instead, it is remembered by the re-enacting and re-presenting of the original act. The original act is a once-for-all act, but it can be re-created and re-presented in Eucharistic celebrations. A different form is used to bring a past act into the present in a way that means Christians encounter, receive and respond to that original act afresh. They are, therefore, doing more than simply recalling that act in their minds but, at the same, are not repeating the act in its original form in the present.

Jones developed an understanding of art which viewed all art as sacramental because the signs made by artists are the thing signified under the forms of their particular art. The artwork is the original object or action that has been represented but in a different form meaning that it is both ‘the thing’ and a ‘different thing’ at one and the same time. In the same way as, at the Eucharist, the bread and wine are both simply bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ at one and the same time.

The art historian, critic and curator Daniel Siedell has suggested that the discipline of paying attention which is fundamental to the visual arts is also a useful discipline for Christians: ‘Attending to … details, looking closely,’ he writes, ‘is a useful discipline for us as Christians, who are supposed to see Christ everywhere, especially in the faces of all people.’ He goes on to argues that, if ‘we dismiss artwork that is strange, unfamiliar, unconventional, if we are inattentive to visual details, how can we be attentive to those around us?’ Jesus made a similar argument when he criticised the crowds which surrounded him as those who see but do not perceive and who hear but do not listen (Matthew 13. 12 – 14).

Prayer and meditation in religious traditions also use the elements we have been noting – slowness, stillness, silence and sacrament – in contemplation and, therefore, as Siedell suggests there is potentially much fruitful exploration possible between the forms of contemplation found in the Arts and in religion.

Francis de Sales said, ‘Every Christian need a half-hour of prayer each day, except when he is busy; then he needs an hour.’ Like the art historian who took time with the artwork, we must all learn to linger. ‘Lingering,’ as Jon Bloom has noted, ‘by definition, takes time’ but is a sign of love as ‘lovers linger over what they love’.

A sermon by the German theologian Paul Tillich entitled ‘Waiting’: “begins by noting that both Old and New Testaments emphasise the aspect of ‘waiting’ in human beings’ relation to God. Tillich comments, ‘The condition of man’s relation to God is first of all one of not having, not seeing, not knowing, and not grasping. A religion in which that is forgotten, no matter how ecstatic or active or reasonable, replaces God by its own creation of an image of God.’ Unfortunately, he continues, most Christians give the impression that they think they do possess God in one way or another. ‘The prophets and apostles, however, did not possess God; they waited for Him.’

W. H. Vanstone argued that it is only to human beings as we wait that ‘the world discloses its power of meaning’ and we become ‘the sharer with God of a secret – the secret of the world’s power of meaning.’ For many of us because we don’t stop and reflect the world exists for us simply as a ‘mere succession of images recorded and registered in the brain’ but when we do stop, wait, look and listen then we ‘no longer merely exist’ but understand, appreciate, welcome, fear and feel.

Within the Christian tradition, we can point to big picture looking in the encouragement St Paul gives to the church in Philippi to continually look for those things that are true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise (Philippians 4. 8) while we can also point to looking for details in the encouragement given throughout the Bible to reflect on all that is around us and all that we encounter.
One place in the Christian tradition where the mix of big picture and detailed thinking can be seen clearly is in the practices of the Celtic Christians, who had a sense of the heavenly being found in the earthly, particularly in the ordinary events and tasks of home and work; together with the sense that every event or task can be blessed if we see God in it. David Adam, who has written many contemporary prayers in a Celtic style, says that: “Much of Celtic prayer spoke naturally to God in the working place of life. There was no false division into sacred and secular. God pervaded all and was to be met in their daily work and travels.’ The Gaelic prayers and poems that Alexander Carmichael collected together in the Carmina Gadelica derive from that same source and abound in the minutiae of life ‘with prayers invoking God’s blessing on such routine daily tasks as lighting the fire, milking the cow and preparing for bed.’

In exploring the art of contemplation in Viola art, we have seen that there are aspects of the Christian tradition that can be connected with and enhanced by learning to look attentively at art and that this is particularly so in relation to the disciplines of prayer.

Lesley Sutton, Director of PassionArt, sums this up when she says:  ‘The gift the artist offers is to share with us the mindful and prayerful act of seeing, for, in order to make material from their thoughts and ideas, they have to spend time noticing, looking intently and making careful observation of the minutiae of things; the negative spaces between objects, the expression and emotion of faces, the effect of light and shadow, shades of colour, the variety of texture, shape and form. This act of seeing slows us down and invites us to pay attention to the moment, to be still, not to rush and only take a quick glance but instead to come into a relationship with that which you are seeing, to understand it and make sense of its relationship with the world around it. This is a form of prayer where we become detached from our own limited perspective and make way for a wider more compassionate understanding of ourselves, others and the world we inhabit.’

Ultimately, all this is so because, as the philosopher, Simone Weil stated, ‘Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.’
Attend, attend, pay attention, contemplate.

Open eyes of faith to days, minutes,
moments of miracle and marvel; there is wildness
and wonder wherever you go, present
in moments that never repeat, running free,
never coming again. Savour, savour the present –
small things, dull moments, dry prayers –
sacraments of presence, sense of wonder,
daily divine depth in the here and now.
There is only here, there is only now,
these are the days, this is the fiery vision,
awe and wildness, miracle and flame. Take off
your shoes, stand in the holy fire; sacrament of the burning, always consumed, never repeating
present moment, knowing the time is now.

Viola has said that the form his interest in the spiritual side of things has taken has been, in a tranquil way, to merely look with great focus at the ordinary things around him that he found wondrous. His works ask us to do the same.

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Bill Viola / Michelangelo Life Death Rebirth Royal Academy 26 January — 31 March 2019

Bill Viola (b. 1951, United States) is internationally recognised as one of the leading artists of our time, an acknowledged pioneer in the medium of video art. For over 40 years he has been making work that explores a series of humanistic and spiritual issues. His works include room-size video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances and flat panel video pieces, as well as works for television broadcast, concerts, opera, and sacred spaces. In 2017 alone he was the subject of several major museum retrospectives including Palazzo Strozzi, Florence; The Diechtorhallen, Hamburg; and Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Viola video installations – total environments that envelop the viewer in image and sound – employ state-of-the-art technologies and are distinguished by their precision and direct simplicity. They are shown in museums and galleries worldwide and are found in many distinguished collections. His single-channel videotapes have been widely broadcast and presented cinematically, while his writings have been extensively published and translated for international readers. Viola uses video to explore the phenomena of sense perception as an avenue to self-knowledge.

Bill Viola



[1] ‘Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come’, T.J. Clark, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London, 2018

[1] G. Pattison, ‘Crucifixions and Resurrections of the Image’, SCM Press, 2009



[1] P. Tillich, ‘The Shaking of the Foundations’, Wipf and Stock; Reprint edition, 2012

[1] W.H. Vanstone, ‘The Stature of Waiting’, Morehouse Publishing, 2006

[1] D. Adams, ‘Power Lines: Celtic Prayers about Work’, SPCK, 1992


[1] ‘Pay attention’ by J. Evens


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