The calm mystery of a floating world, illuminated only by a beam of light, is suddenly upset by the presence of a female body, liberated from any trace of earthly weight. As if attracted to another dimension, the body rises, leaving behind a luminous wake, similar to the appearance of a new constellation. Transmitted on a large plasma video monitor, Isolde’s Ascension (The Shape of Light in the Space after Death), 2005, is one of the works created within Love/Death: the Tristan Project, a series conceived by Bill Viola in relation to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. While Wagner, inspired by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, rewrote the originally medieval legend and focused on the relationship between love and death, which he sublimated into his Liebestod, evoking the death of love, Viola further heightens the exploration of a dimension that transcends terrestrial life. Thus the video installation shows Isolde’s path in her quest to reunite with her beloved through death. The image bears traces of the iconography of The Assumption of the Virgin, a painting by Titian in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, which made an impression on Wagner during the time he was composing his opera. In agreement with Viola, the video installation is permanently installed in the Castello’s former chapel, precisely in the position traditionally reserved for the altarpiece.
Bill Viola’s work is characterized by a reflection on the human condition and a by a search for a spiritual dimension. In his earliest works in the 1970s, the artist uses the possibilities technology to create videos that investigate specific psychological and emotional states. In subsequent works, developed as multi-channel installations conceived to stimulate numerous senses, he concentrates on archetypal images, including the processes of birth, growth, and death. Raised in a Catholic environment, Viola followed a spiritual path that led him to Eastern mysticism. However, in works he produced since the mid-1990s, he turned his attention to Christian iconography, in particular to its Medieval, Renaissance, and Mannerist representations.
The progressive degree of complexity found in Viola’s installations also demands the use of actors and a large crew that the artist directs on sets comparable to those used for commercial movies and which are built in his studio. The recorded images—for which 35-millimeter film is also sometimes used—are successively elaborated with the most advanced digital technology. Music, sound effects, and computer enhancement are integral parts of his installations.