The Reflecting Pool, 1977–79

The Reflecting Pool, 1977–79
Color videotape, monoaural sound;
7 min.
Performer: Bill Viola
Courtesy of Bill Viola Studio

“A man emerges from the forest and stands before a pool of water. He leaps up and time suddenly stops. All movement and change in the otherwise still scene is limited to the reflections and undulations on the surface of the pond. Time becomes extended and punctuated by a series of events seen only as reflections in the water. The work describes the emergence of the individual into the natural world, a baptism into a world of virtual images and indirect perceptions.”

Bill Viola [1]

Bill Viola (New York, 1951) was one of the first artists who used video art as a mean of expression in the 1970’s. Video art started to become popular as an artistic medium in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, as portable video cameras became more affordable for the public outside television stations. Before video had emerged as a new technology, moving images were only reproduced via 8-mm or 16-mm film, which required a post-production process before they could be watched. The idea of recording visual images in motion on video film and having them available for immediate reproduction was a revelation for the artists of the time. As a result, many artists found video a more appealing medium for their works than film.

This juncture was when Bill Viola started studying in the Experimental Studios program at Syracuse University in New York. Primarily motivated by the immediacy of video art, Viola began exploring the different techniques in this medium as he pursued his university degree. During these formation years, Viola assisted in several projects by the artist Nam June Paik (South Korea, 1932–United States, 2006), an innovative leader from a generation of emerging artists who were seeking new means of artistic expression and distribution.[2]

Several years after leaving university, Viola began a series of 5 works entitled The Reflecting Pool (1977–79), Moonblood (1979–80), Silent Life (1979), Ancient of Days (1979–81), and Vegetable Memory (1978–80), which he later compiled into the “album” The Reflecting Pool - Collected Work 1977–80.[3] As a whole, they describe the stages of a personal journey taken by the artist. In his “albums,” Viola uses images of transition—from day to night, motion to stillness, time to timelessness.[4]

In the first work he made in the series entitled The Reflecting Pool (1977–79), Viola began to explore some of the themes that he would continue to develop throughout his entire career. The video begins with the scene of a man, the artist in this case, emerging from the forest and stopping at the edge of a pool. The man suddenly jumps into the pool while crying out, and time is suspended at that very moment. His image remains frozen while the rest of the scene unfolds naturally. The man stays floating in the air in a fetal position and does not fall into the water; the sound of the water cannot be heard. In reality, the man does not fall; he remains suspended in the air, where he remains through most of the video. However, the pool does not remain indifferent; it reacts by generating ripples in the water as if he had fallen into it. This contrast sparks tension between the halted motion and the ongoing motion, between the man suspended as if in a static photograph and the motion of the water, which shows the continuation of the video, which shifts to the dichotomy between the man and nature and between the visible world and the intangible world.[1]

In the ensuing minutes, a series of actions occur, but they can only be seen in the water, like a reflection, even though nothing is happening on the other side of the pool. The man suspended in the air gradually vanishes and other people appear reflected in the pool, yet they also gradually vanish like fleeting memories. Towards the end of the video, the water turns midnight black and a brilliant circle of white light appears in the middle of it. As the water returns to its original color, the naked man once again emerges, leaving the pool to disappear once again into the forest from which he had originally emerged.

The video was extremely complex to produce at the time it was filmed. Viola had to use a fixed camera and take several shots fading into one another in order to achieve the image transition that he wanted. In this way, he managed to generate a video that is extraordinarily complex for the viewer’s perception.[2]

To Bill Viola, The Reflecting Pond first represents a reflection on the individual’s arrival into the world of nature, a baptism into a world of virtual images and indirect perceptions.[3] Yet it also symbolizes the passage of time and memory. When Viola was a child, he almost drowned in a lake on a family vacation. The experience of what he felt and saw in the brief time he was underwater before his uncle saved him left a mark on his life and work. To the artist, discovering the universe of underwater colors was a totally magical experience which became a recurring theme in his works throughout his career.


Look at the Bill Viola video. (length: 7 minutes)

After you finish watching the video, take at least  five minutes to make a list of all the words that come to mind to describe what you saw. Share this list with your classmates. What are the words that you all used the most? Which ones were not repeated?

Where do you think the video was recorded? What are the signs that make you say that? What sounds did you hear? What scents do you think you would smell in that place? How do you think you would feel if you could be there? Would you like to walk there? Why? Have you ever been in a similar place?

What might be the connection between what happens inside and outside the water? Why do you think that most of the action in the video takes place in the water instead of in the rest of the landscape? Where does Viola place the viewer? What might have led him to make this decision?

Bill Viola is one of the most important video artists in the history of art. Why do you think some artists choose video as a tool to create their works? What might the advantages and disadvantages of this artistic medium be? Viola is interested in interplaying with static images like photographs and moving images like video. In what part of this work do you think he puts this into practice? How does he do it? What do you think the stages in preparing the video were, and what do you imagine these stages were like?