I so wanted to see the poppy installation when it was at the Tower of London, but never managed to get there. A part of it, though – the Wave – is now at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and we made a visit there last week. It’s small in comparison – around 5,000 poppies compared to 888,246 at the Tower – but still impressive. The poppies pour down from a small stone bridge, spilling into the water at the bottom, and the setting works well.
Unfortunately it was a dull grey day with uninteresting light, plus a lot of other people on site, so getting decent photos of it wasn’t easy. To be honest, I felt a little bit flat on seeing it. From a distance it looked fantastic – a flow of bright red in the greyish landscape- but close up it lacked something. The coach parties of visitors didn’t help – I would have liked to spend time with it alone, tuning in to its real meaning. I took some photos nonetheless, and quite like some of the close-up details.
I think perhaps the poppies paled into insignificance for me after viewing the Bill Viola exhibition first (also on at the YSP). Bill Viola is a video artist – or as he prefers it, an artist who happens to use video. Now, I usually find video art very unappealing, but there are a few exceptions – Tacita Dean’s installation in the Tate Turbine Hall, for example, and something I once saw in an art gallery in Reykjavik although I can’t remember what it was. Even then, they don’t touch my soul in the way that a lot of other art does. Bill Viola, though, is my new art crush.
I can only tell you about it here, because although there are plenty of videos on Youtube showing his major works, they’re badly-recorded phone camera jobs that aren’t even a pale imitation of seeing the real thing and would probably make you think he’s not worth bothering about. A lot of this is because Viola’s films are exceptionally and beautifully sharp and detailed, and shown very, very big. Much of their impact lies in the clear, sharp, detail, coupled with the extreme slowing down of the ‘action’ which is his trademark.
I first came across Viola years ago, when I was taken along to what I think was his Quintet Series 2000 exhibition. I wasn’t as into art then as I am now, and I didn’t have much understanding of it either, but I knew quality when I saw it. However, I found this work quite hard to take as it involved huge close-up videos of five actor’s faces in exquisite – and sometimes excruciating – slow motion as they experienced a variety of mostly negative emotions. I often feel very uncomfortable looking at faces this closely, and I found it difficult to watch the minute nuances of anguish on someone’s face over a period of what felt like hours, although it was actually minutes. It was very, very good, but I simply couldn’t watch it for long.
However, much of Viola’s work is centred around water and fire, and these were the pieces that did it for me at the YSP. Two of them were created to act as backdrops for a production of the opera Tristan and Isolde. One of these, Ascension, starts with a pale, draped figure lying prone on a white plinth. Gently at first, a column of water begins to pour upwards from the figure, getting ‘heavier’ and ‘heavier’, till there are water drops bouncing off the plinth and waves developing in the water around it. Then slowly the figure begins to ascend towards the source of the deluge, finally disappearing, and the water slowly decreases again till it’s nothing more than mist. Its accompanying film, Fire Woman, begins with the silhouette of a woman against a huge wall of flame. Eventually she begins to move, slowly, until she dives into a pool of water in front of her and the water splash rises up in front of the flames, to fall back into the fire-reflecting ripples of the water. Both videos had soundtracks, of the pouring water or the crackling fire, and were shown several times larger than lifesize. Everything happens in slow motion, and is meditative, stunningly beautiful, and awe-inspiring.
There were many more of Viola’s works to see, all of them quite amazing and many of them somewhat more complex than the two I’ve described. The whole point about them, though, is that like the best art they manage to express ideas and feelings that can’t be put into words, and so to attempt to describe them rather misses the point. There’s a meditative quality to all his work that draws you into it and won’t let go, and it’s difficult to get across something so intangible. All I can say is, if you’re in the vicinity, go and see it!
Resources: I eventually found a half decent video of Fire Woman on Vimeo. Just bear in mind, if you watch it, that when shown as intended the screen is twice as high as an average interior wall and a small video loses most of the impact, as you can’t see the subtle detail. The woman doesn’t begin to move until three minutes in, and doesn’t dive until nearly four minutes in, but this doesn’t matter when you see it really big – it’s enthralling enough to hold you even though not much is happening.
And if you’d prefer something shorter, here’s a 45 second trailer for the YSP exhibition, which shows a few of the works very briefly, including Ascension: