Who better for our Bonfire Night weekend Contemporary Classic than the thunderous Bill Viola? His vertigo-inducing Fire Woman flings its viewer into the elements, and stirs an instinctive, emotional response from the guts.

Bill Viola, Fire Woman, 2005. Video/sound installation. Performer: Robin Bonaccorsi. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio; photo by Kira Perov

I first encountered Bill Viola’s Fire Woman in the eighteenth-century chapel at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. It was the perfect setting for the video—dark and devilish but godly at the same time. The American artist’s work somehow transcends our typically binary ideas of good and evil, tapping into a primal sense of earthy power, spirituality and destruction all at once. As the flames rise in front of the body in this particular video, there is an unexpected, mesmeric calm, the black cloaked, scarecrow-like figure seeming to revel in this shower of extreme heat as the viewer is bathed in an intense and almost constant shower of sound.

“I have always depicted a world that is different to the one we all see as ‘reality’, an inner world that resides in our dreams or in our subconscious mind”

Fire itself is a contradictory element—soothing and comforting when under control, as in the gentle crackling of a log-loaded fireplace; more terrifying than almost anything else when unchecked and ravaging everything in its path. In Fire Woman, the viewer is privy to both sides of the element, as watching the giant flames moving up the long and thin screen—a favoured format of Viola’s—becomes incredibly calming and meditative, yet fire’s true force is also shown to full effect. It seems to be alive, with a will of its own. “Most of the works have a built-in positive aspect to them; with the cycle of birth and death there is always rebirth,” the artist said in an issue 32 Encounter.

As the camera rises up the cloaked figure’s body and begins to travel overhead, a sense of vertigo, and of falling into the fire, occurs and the viewer is offered a bird’s-eye view—something which has been used much more in recent years for VR works. But the sense of moving into the fire is also a calming one, relating to the way one might fly in a dream with no fear of falling.

“All of my art represents my search for the spiritual that exists in everything,” Viola told me in issue 32. “I have always depicted a world that is different to the one we all see as ‘reality’, an inner world that resides in our dreams or in our subconscious mind, a world where we can focus on the mysteries of life.”

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