"Three contemporary women maintain an intensive, locked gaze with the camera as they undergo a succession of strong emotional states. Joy, sorrow, anger, and fear unfold on their faces in slow motion as continuous gradations of expression. The three moving-image portraits are presented as individually framed pictures mounted in a row on a wall. The women's relentlessly staring eyes call out for the viewer to return their gaze. Their unbroken lines of sight cut across time and space to meet the viewer's eyes in a continuously shifting stream of emotional strength and vulnerability."
Bill Viola, Witness, 2001
Known as the one of the few masters of video, Bill Viola holds another artistic distinction: one of the few contemporary artists to broach the murky territory of the spiritual with purpose and artistic success. A practicing Zen Buddhist, Viola draws on his own quest for self-knowledge and seeks to make art that "cultivates knowledge for how to be in the world, for going through life." Known for his epic works which center on the poignancy of the human condition and the expression of emotion, Viola began a series of works in 2000 called "The Passions" that drew their inspiration from devotional paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Inspired by these religious icons, Viola sought to make works that guided actors to engage in what he calls the "Direct Gaze" in which the actors maintain a locked gaze with the camera (and therefore the viewer) and express a single emotion in a fully realized manner. Elegant in form, Witness is an outstanding example of Viola's interest in exploring the unseen world of memories and feelings.
"Witness is an elusive and irreducible piece which testifies directly to the interchangeability and interrelatedness of opposite moods and states the impossibility of sustaining "pure" emotion. You can feel your own mood shift as you watch three women open their eyes in calm and then look back at you with powerfully suggestive and even contagious emotional indicators. The piece is a rollercoaster ride through your own emotional landscape and brings home the confusion that we experience in the face of different versions, contradictory accounts and the divergent explanations of the world around us." (P. Sellars, "Bodies of Light" in Bill Viola:The Passions, exh. cat., The Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2003, p. 177).