el saludo

The Greeting, 1995

The Greeting, 1995
Video and sound installation
Projection of color video on a large vertical screen mounted on the wall in a dark space; amplified stereophonic sound
Size of the image projected: 2.8 x 2.4 m
Size of the gallery: 4.3 x 6.7 x 7.6 m
10 min. 22 sec.
Performers: Angela Black, Suzanne Peters, Bonnie Snyder

“It is about capturing the moment, but also stretching it. (…) It’s the emotions that are being stretched” Bill Viola, 2017[1]

Soon after he turned 23, Bill Viola (New York, 1951) moved to Florence to work in one of the leading video art studios in Europe. María Gloria Bicocchi, its founder, had created it with the idea that this innovative artistic language would become the new working tool of contemporary artists.[2] Viola arrived in Italy to work as a technician and be in charge of the video camera. In Bicocchi’s studio, he met important artists of the day, had the chance to be exposed to European culture, and spent several months visiting Italian churches, which would go on to heavily influence his future works.[3]

Almost 20 years later, in 1995, Viola once again fortuitously stumbled upon the Italian Renaissance. He was captivated after a chance encounter in a bookstore of a book with a Renaissance image of three women talking. Shortly thereafter, he was in his car driving to his studio when he stopped at a red light and noticed three women on a corner whose dresses were billowing in the wind as the leaves on the trees were rustling. When he reached his studio, he quickly perused that book and found the work The Visitation (1528) by the great Italian painter Pontormo (1494 –1557), a very similar scene to the women he had just seen: the figures interacting, the light and color palette verging on the surrealistic, the movement of their clothing billowing in the wind. This coincidence truly enthralled the artist, and almost against his own will, he began to create the video artwork entitled The Greeting (1995) based on his experience and on the work by the early 16th-century Italian mannerist painter Pontormo.[4]

Pontormo’s The Visitation (1528) portrays the moment when Mary tells her cousin Elizabeth that she is expecting a child (Jesus). However, unless the viewer is familiar with this specific event from the Bible’s New Testament, the scene seems like a simple greeting, as the title indicates. Unlike Pontormo, Viola’s work does not strive to depict an episode from the Bible, but instead he uses the Italian work as the inspiration to create something new.[5] Viola captures the spirit of Pontormo’s painting by imitating the women’s brightly-colored clothing, for example, but he transports the scene to a contemporary urban setting with industrial buildings and an apparently austere urban background.

The Greeting consists of a sequence of video images projected onto a screen mounted on the wall in a dark room. It shows two women engrossed in conversation. Behind them we can glimpse industrial buildings lined up in a strange perspective over a drab urban background. As the two women are speaking, a third one appears, interrupts them, and comes up to them. When they turn to greet her, it is obvious that one of the women knows her very well, while the other knows her less or perhaps not at all. A slight breeze begins to blow and causes a subtle change in the lighting when the third woman comes and greets the woman she knows while ignoring the other; as they embrace, she bends toward her friend and whispers something to her, even further isolating the third woman. With clear awkwardness, introductions are made and all three exchange small talk.[6]

Viola filmed this work in a single take using a high-speed fixed 35-mm camera which took 300 stills per second. It was placed vertically, framing the scene as if it were a painting. The event lasted just 45 seconds, but the artist projects it extremely slowly, so the figures’ actions unfold like an elaborate choreography over the course of ten minutes. In this way, some subtle aspects of the scene which would go unnoticed at standard speed become apparent. The unconscious body language and nuances of certain fleeting glances and gestures are heightened and remain suspended in the viewer’s conscious awareness.[7] However, the story is still intentionally ambiguous – the women’s actions are not explained, leaving the viewer to speculate on the precise meaning of this enigmatic greeting.

Furthermore, the shifts in the lighting and wind become core events in the scene. Thanks to these changes, Viola manages to play with the perspective without moving the camera, so the background briefly becomes the foreground, allowing viewers to glimpse other figures engaged in unknown activities in the darker spaces behind the three central figures. The geometry of the walls and the buildings appears to violate the laws of perspective, and all of this, together with the ambiguities in the lighting, make the entire scene ambiguous.


Begin by watching Bill Viola’s work The Greeting [length: 10 min. 22 sec.]

If you had to tell someone else who couldn’t see this video what it is about, how would you recount what happens? Look carefully at the three women. Who do you think they are? What does the way they are dressed tell you? What is their relationship?

Now pay attention to the context: Where do you think the three women are? Are you familiar with anywhere similar? Do you think this place really exists or is it fictitious? Why? How do you think you would feel if you could be there? What happens with the light during the video? What time of day do you think it is?

If you could see the video at standard speed, how long do you think it would last? It actually lasts just 45 seconds, but the artist projects it extremely slowly to make the video last 10 minutes. What do you think the artist achieves with this effect? What things did you notice in 10 minutes that you might not have picked up on in 45 seconds? What do you think is accentuated by slowing it down, and what is lost by seeing it in slow motion?

Viola’s video is partly based on the painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Pontormo, The Visitation (1528). Look at Pontormo’s work. What similarities and differences can you find? What does Viola achieve by creating a motion picture based on a static picture? Viola has said the following about this work (2017): “It is about capturing the moment, but also stretching it. (…) It’s the emotions that are being stretched.” What does this statement suggest to you?