Viola bodies

Art - Ned Denny melts in the reflected glories of a new installation of video art

Bill Viola is driven above all by a sense of the sacred. This is discernible not only in the subject matter of his work (dripping water, solitary trees, mirage-haunted deserts), but in his reading (the writings of St John of the Cross and the 13th-century Sufi poet Jallaludin Rumi, as well as Foucault and Baudrillard) and in his gnomic utterances ("There is nothing to wait for except to live in the next moment").

Viola has spoken recently of how entire cultures can simply fall asleep. What is interesting about his work is the way he uses the very agents of that somnolence - the dream-spinning technologies of video and DVD - as a means of stunning people into wakefulness.

As can be seen from his new work at the Anthony d'Offay gallery in London, Christian iconography also exerts a powerful influence. The first piece in the exhibition, twinned full-length portraits of a man and a woman, is essentially a high-tech rendering of the expulsion from Eden. Shown in black and white and in slow motion, the figures writhe inside framed plasma screens that echo the hinged altarpieces of the Renaissance. They are adjacent yet apart, cloistered in their private agonies, divided by a common grief. The piece announces the underlying theme of the exhibition and of Viola's entire oeuvre - we live in a fallen state, alienated from ourselves and each other, and it is the role of art to re-establish some form of contact, to make us sane.

In the current climate, such ideals seem old-fashioned. When pursued with Viola's clarity of vision and technical expertise, however, the result is work of an unparalleled immediacy. Another slowed-down diptych, entitled Mater, displays the heads of a middle-aged and an elderly woman. This time, the flat screens are not fixed to the wall but propped on a box, much in the manner of family photographs on a mantelpiece. But these "photographs" are alive. As you watch the slow drift of their expressions from joy to sorrow and back again, the face is revealed as an instrument of infinite subtlety. And then there are those moments when, hovering between two states, it expresses a nameless rapture that seems to contain all emotions. Physicists have speculated that every particle of matter contains information about the state of the entire universe; here, Viola reveals, in somewhat similar fashion, the supreme wisdom of the face.

The most remarkable of these latter-day devotional pieces is the second, untitled diptych. This consists of the water-reflected upper torsos of a weeping man and woman, positioned one above the other, so that the woman's inverted torso seems to be the reflection of the man's. You only realise that these are reflections, however, when both figures bend from the waist and dip their faces noiselessly into the water. What happens next is breathtaking - as the (real) heads lift out of shot once more, trailing droplets, the torsos begin to pulse and waver. Suddenly ghostlike, they seem to dance with a newfound lightness. The ripples increase in size and intensity, until both heads, still weeping, throb like beating hearts. Viola has spoken repeatedly of the need for artists to resist the lure of ever-newer technology in order to concentrate on making primal, symbolic images. Here, he has created an unforgettable emblem of the soul touched by the real; brought not sol-ace, but new and overwhelming sensation.

The sacred mysteries of this water-realm are further explored in Five Angels for the Millennium, an installation that feels more like an initiation into some pagan cult. Entering the room, you are temporarily thrown by the darkness and a low roar of sound (broken water, it soon transpires, and the chirp of crickets). Projected on to vast screens are the gloomy, blue-green tones of a submarine world - although, at first, these could just as easily be images of featureless swathes of deep space.

It does not become fully apparent what you are seeing until the "angels" appear, bursting into view in a surge of noise and stellar bubbles. But the ambiguity remains, largely because some of the images are inverted so that the diving figures appear to move upward. Has water been elevated to the skies, or are these swimmers lunging for an unreachable surface? In one extraordinary reversed sequence, a nebulous bubble formation slowly appears and concentrates until a black figure slips elegantly from its centre.

In his book Waterlog, the writer and film-maker Roger Deakin speaks of the ambiguous pleasures of swimming: "Once in the water, you are immersed in an intensely private world as you were in the womb. These amniotic waters are both utterly safe and yet terrifying, for at birth anything could go wrong, and you are assailed by all kinds of unknown forces over which you have no control . . . The swimmer experiences the terror and bliss of being born." Viola's installation (and indeed, all the other pieces in the show, slowness being one of water's governing attributes) can be seen as a series of windows on to this strange and dangerous realm. They give on to life itself.

"Bill Viola: Five Angels for the Millennium and other new works" is at the Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London WC1 (020 7499 4100), until 21 July

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men