The video artists piece of work I’ve chosen to research for part of the Word in a Bag formative assignment is Bill Viola’s Fire Woman. The reason I chose him and this piece of work are simply because I like the work he does, including this piece. It’s early days for me and video art and I must admit that I struggled to understand and therefore appreciate the work of many of the artists we were given as possibilities for research. Bill Viola was the one I kept coming back to even though I didn’t fully appreciate his work at the start.

After watching several interviews with the man, it’s clear to see that he’s a very spiritual person and I’d have to agree with the statement on the biography page of his website, available from: [Accessed 11/11/18] that:

His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism.

Available from: [Accessed 11/11/18]

There are a couple of pieces of work by Bill Viola that I really like so far as I start to look into the artist.

Fire Woman

This work was created by Bill Viola in 2005 as a piece for Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolda. It’s a love story where both Tristan and Isolda have to leave their bodies to be able to be together. The idea behind the Fire Woman is that it’s a vision Tristan has whilst he’s dying from a wound he’s suffered. The vision is of his lover walking towards him as he’s passing away.

The video below is available from: [Accessed 11/11/18].

What I initially see in this work is a wall of fire behind the silhouette of a person in robes. It’s difficult to tell at first whether the person is moving towards the viewer or not. As the piece goes on, though, it becomes clear that they are slowly. The slow speed of the movement of the person fits perfectly with the context of the piece as Tristan is having the vision as he’s dying.

What I hear is the roar of the flames and slowed splash of the water as the person falls into it. The combination of a silhouetted robed figure slowly moving towards us whilst making no sound is an eerie one and, again, perfect for someone who’s having a final vision before death.

What comes after the figure has fallen into the water is what makes this piece start to make me think about the technical aspect of it. As can be seen from the video above, once she’s fallen into the water, the disturbance of that water starts to move up the screen in a way that distorts the flames.

This distortion had me confused to the point where I had to say that it must be special effects. Bill Viola explains in several interviews that no special effects were used in the making of this piece and the whole film is actually done by pointing a camera at a ninety-foot pool which has the reflection of the flames and woman in it. The fact that the footage is slowed down is what gives the great effect of the water distortion slowly overcoming the flames. The flames finally die out and a calm rippling of the water takes over with a much more calming blue colour dominating the scene. This, to me, signifies that Tristan has died and moved on to another plane to be with his lover.

I must admit that, even though I know it’s a reflection in the water, I’m still a little confused as to exactly how the camera was set up to achieve the perfect deception of the water overcoming the flames once the figure has fallen into the water. This is a good thing and a positive about this piece of work as it is making me think about it long after I’ve viewed it.

Bill Viola explains the piece in this interview for INFRAME.TV posted on YouTube. Available from: [Accessed 11/11/18]

Martin Gayford of The Telegraph describes the work as:

As a piece of imagery this is extraordinary: primordial and poetic. Without actually illustrating anything, it suggests all manner of things – the flight of seraphim, the rushing waters of the creation and the flood. All of Viola’s Tristan pieces are like that. They don’t illustrate Wagner’s opera but they engage with the underlying symbolism of the composer’s world.

Martin Gayford

The Telegraph, 17 Jun 2006

To me, this piece of work is stunning enough to watch on my laptop screen but what Viola does is create entire environments of dark spaces populated by huge screens showing his work. I can imagine this piece gains even more of an impact when viewed at an actual exhibition.


Bill Viola uses water in much of his work and he attributes this to an incident that happened to him as a child.

When he was six years old, he jumped into the water with a rubber ring around him. The problem was that he didn’t realise he was meant to hold on. As a result, he slipped through the rubber ring and sank. Whilst he was under the water he says he discovered the most wonderful world with its rays of light coming through from the surface and greenery swaying below him. Suddenly, he was shaken out of his dazed-like state by the hand of his uncle reaching in to pull him safely out of the water. He fought his uncle all the way to the surface as he wanted to stay in that world. Later in his life, Viola forgot about the incident until one interviewer brought up the incident and wondered if that was the root cause of the water themes in his work. This was a moment of revelation and realisation to Viola as well.

Title image credit: | Individual images by Kira Perov