In Focus

Bill Viola, The Crossing

Bill Viola's The Crossing is an integration of the presence of sculpture, and the immediacy of video and sound technologies. In this work, two moving image works are projected simultaneously on a double-sided screen suspended in the middle of the space. Each projection shows a single action involving a human figure that culminates in its annihilation by one of two opposing natural forces: fire and water.

On the fire side, a human form slowly approaches from a great distance through a dark space. The image is grainy and indistinct, shadowy and obscure. As the figure gradually becomes more distinct, it becomes recognizable as a man walking straight toward the viewer, all the time becoming larger. When his body almost fills the frame, he stops moving and stands still, staring directly at the viewer in silence. A small votive flame appears at his feet. Suddenly, brilliant orange flames rise up and quickly spread across the floor and up onto his body. A loud, penetrating sound fills the space as his form becomes completely engulfed by a raging fire. The fire soon subsides until only a few small flickering flames remain on a charred floor. The figure of the man is gone. The image returns to darkness, and the cycle repeats anew.

On the water side, again a human form approaches. He slowly moves toward the viewer out of the shadows, in the same manner as the other figure. Finally, he too stops and stares, motionless and silent. Suddenly, a stream of silver-blue water begins pouring onto his head, sending trails of splashing droplets in all directions. The stream quickly turns into a raging torrent as a massive flow of water cascades from above, completely inundating the man while a thundering, roaring sound fills the space. The falling water soon begins to subside and it trails off, leaving a few droplets falling on the floor. The figure of the man is gone. The image then returns to black and, again, the cycle starts anew.

Similar to a two-sided altarpiece, the illuminated, synchronized moving images of a human form on each side of the screen are parallel worlds in one universe: an endless cycle of death and renewal. While not overtly specific, the image of man being annihilated by fire and water recalls iconic, symbolic imagery and themes found in sacred and secular narratives throughout time. The Crossing taps Eastern and Western philosophies, religions, and poetry. It reflects Viola's lifelong interest in Taoism, Zen Buddhism, and in particular the lyrical poetry of 13th-century Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi and of Rainer Maria Rilke.

Adapted from

  • Suzanne Weaver, "New Media at the Dallas Museum of Art," in Dallas Museum of Art, 100 Years, ed. Dorothy M. Kosinski (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003), Pamphlet number 79.

  • DMA unpublished material.

  • DMA label copy on TMS.