Bill Viola’s Emergence as a Picture of the Resurrected Christ and the New Birth of Believers

Water shows up a lot in the Christian scriptures and, along with bread and wine, is central to the sacramental life of the church. In the rite of baptism, it signifies purification or cleansing, even as it signifies too the burial of the old man and the rising of the new.

Bill Viola riffs on these and other connotations in his video art piece Emergence, created in 2002 at the commission of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The piece is part of The Passions series, the aim of which is to explore the power and complexity of human emotion.

Bill Viola Emergence still

Click here to see a nine-photo study for Emergence. (Warning: contains nudity.)

The video shows two women sitting on either side of a large marble receptacle, each absorbed in her own grief. Then to their surprise, a man starts rising up out of it, pale and nude, unleashing a cascade of water. He stands at full height, then totters and falls; the women catch him and help him gently to the ground. They then cover him with a cloth, one overcome by tearful emotion, the other tenderly embracing his body.

These actions unfold in extreme slow motion over a span of eleven minutes and forty-nine seconds. Viola uses this slow playback technique in much of his work because, he says, he wants the viewer to notice every subtle shift of movement and emotional expression. In our fast-moving world and even in film, such things are barely perceptible.

In the original installation, the video was rear-projected on a wall-mounted screen in a dark room. A low-quality YouTube clip viewed on a computer is a poor substitute, but I show it here to give you an idea of Viola’s vision.

CONTENT ADVISORY: Video contains nudity.

A child of postmodernism, Viola embraces ambiguity; he said he doesn’t want to lock his works into any one meaning but rather prefers their meaning to remain fluid and unstable.

This expansive approach to imagery is evident in Emergence, a work that poses more questions than answers. Where is the scene taking place? Who are the two women? What is their relationship to each other, and to the man? From where is the man emerging? Is he alive—a newborn? or one being reborn?—or is he dead, a victim of drowning? The water can support either reading, being seen as either an agent of life—that is, the amniotic fluid that cushions and nourishes the child in preparation for his birth—or an agent of death, a flood that fills the lungs, chokes the breath, and crushes the body. 

Viola urges viewers to consider the video from all angles:

If I look at this from the point of view of our contemporary eye, it’s the aftermath of a drowning: these two women pulling a limp, lifeless figure out of water. If I look at it with the inner eye, what I see is a birth, of water overflowing and a young man who’s practically naked being taken out by women, almost in the function of midwives, of bringing a being into the world. (Source: Bill Viola and Emergence, 6:26)

When I first came across a clip from Emergence, I had no idea of its context, and yet I instantly recognized Jesus in it—rising up out of a tomb, flanked by two of the Marys. Then I found out that the work was indeed inspired by an image of Jesus, a fifteenth-century fresco by Masolino da Panicale that shows the dead Christ being propped up at half length in his tomb by his mother and John.

Masolino passion painting

Masolino, Pietà (detail), 1424. Fresco, 280 x 118 cm. Museo Diocesano, Empoli, Italy.

Though not a Christian, Viola said he is attracted to Renaissance devotional paintings—for both aesthetic and spiritual reasons. On the one hand, they demonstrate a skillful use of space, in the way that figures are arranged within a frame. But on top of that, Viola said he feels connected to these beings from the past through shared emotion. He mentions, for example, the Mater Dolorosa by Dieric Bouts—the red, puffy eyes of the Virgin, tears on her cheeks, her head downcast in grief but searching for inner strength—being such a moving image of sorrow, one that any parent who has lost a child can relate to, or even more generally any person who has had to say good-bye to another.

Although the crucifixion and resurrection are most commonly thought of as Christian symbols, Viola says they are not exclusively so; rather, they speak to the universal human experiences of suffering, death, hope, and spiritual rebirth. A powerful iconography of these subjects has been developed and passed down by Christians, yes, but there is a core truth beneath these images that speaks to all, and it is this truth that Viola tries to get at in his work. By starting with time-tested images from the Christian tradition and then stripping them of their explicitly Christian context, he opens them up to people outside that faith tradition so that they too might feel their power and be able to connect emotionally with them.

Viola said he doesn’t care to restage older paintings; what interests him is what happens when images go into us and live there and grow and transform into other things. So after sitting with Viola’s Emergence for the last month or so, let me tell you how it’s been working in me.

These image associations/concepts immediately came to mind: The resurrection of Christ. Tomb as womb. My own rebirth, as pictured in my baptism. A mother’s water sac, broken. Life bursting forth. Overflowing.

After meditating on these images for a while, I started engaging the piece more deeply, considering the significance of the title, the symbolism of water in the Bible, the interconnectedness of life and death, and the multiple functions of the marble structure.

I grew troubled that as a resurrection narrative the video doesn’t seem to make full sense, as the body is laid on the ground at the end and covered with a cloth, supposedly for burial. It’s essentially a reverse sequence of familiar passion tableaux that moves backward from the Resurrection to the Lamentation. Is Viola just being experimental here with time—not only decelerating it, but rewinding it? Perhaps.

In trying to reconcile birth with a lifeless body, I was reminded of a brood of freshly hatched chicks I had seen at a New England fair last year. Several of them looked dead, as they were lying prone in the incubator, puny, wet, and starkly still, and I was worried they hadn’t survived. But then someone told me they were just resting after all those hours of cracking through their eggshells. It’s hard work being born!

I’m not sure how well this corresponds to Christ’s story—though a feat for sure, I don’t think that breaking back through to life weakened his glory-body—but this image of the baby chicks kept surfacing in my mind nonetheless as I reflected on Viola’s video. Perhaps it’s more apt when applied to an individual’s rebirth into the family of God, which for many is a process of struggle.

What’s interesting in Viola’s Emergence is how life and death intertwine and, in doing so, confound, create paradox. Christians are no strangers to paradox; we embrace a paradox at the center of our faith: the cross of Christ, which is at once terrible and good, shameful and glorifying, death dealing and life giving. We also experience death and life as two sides of the same coin when it comes to conversion: we put to death our old self and enter into new life in Christ. Might the video, then, be read as a new self emerging as the old self is dying (the actor playing two parts)?

Viola explores the life-death paradox not only through the blocking of the figures but through the ambiguous set, particularly through the large boxlike structure in center frame that could be a cistern, a wellhead, a sarcophagus, a womb, or a baptismal font—or all five.

Cisterns and wells are very similar in that they were both used in the ancient world (and still are) as methods for collecting water. A cistern is a manmade reservoir into which rainwater is conducted through some overground apparatus, whereas wells draw from a more abundant underground source, being supplied by springs. The contrast is made evident in Jeremiah 2:13, where God accuses the Israelites of seeking water from broken cisterns—that is, from false gods—instead of from the ever-flowing source that is himself.

In Viola’s series of images, one might see a courtyard, and in that courtyard a cistern storing water. But not just any water—Christ the Living Water. The container cannot contain him, and so he spills out over it.

As wellhead, the structure recalls the biblical story of Jesus’s confrontation with the Samaritan woman at the well and his declaration that “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14).

Consider, too, the image of the emerging Christ in light of these other lines of scripture:

Then Israel sang this song: “Spring up, O well!” (Numbers 21:17a)

Truth shall spring out of the earth. (Psalm 85:11a)

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

These images of a wellspring of truth and life and newness mesh well with the image that Easter morning gives us: the emergence of Christ from his tomb. The video opens with a span of mourning and of waiting; it’s the day after the crucifixion, and Christ is a corpse. Then—emergence! A miracle is afoot, and these two women are there to witness it: death transmuting into life.

Because of this miracle that was engendered inside it, Christ’s tomb is oftentimes perceived in Christian imagination as a symbolic womb, a nesting place for new life. In this sense, the gush of water in the video signifies the rupture of the amnion and the bursting forth of the birth fluids.

Viola’s video reminds me of an image from Mary Karr’s poem “Descending Theology: The Resurrection”: on that first Easter Sunday, breath “spilled” into Jesus’s entombed body, and “[n]ow / it’s your limbs he comes to fill, as warm water / shatters at birth, rivering every way.” In the video, Christ’s spirit reindwells and reanimates his body, pushing him up out of Earth’s womb. And this same spirit is available to us today, still active in bringing dead things to life.

Such spiritual activity is proclaimed regularly at the baptismal font, the site where death and resurrection are reenacted by the believer’s being submerged into a tub of water and pulled up anew:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

Viola said he wanted this video to implant itself in the minds of viewers and to grow in all directions. It has done so with me, and though the artist may accuse me of being too narrow in my reading of it, I’ve really enjoyed letting the image flower in my heart and mind during Lent. Today, Holy Saturday, the waters are still, the surface quiet. But I am eagerly anticipating the rustling, and then the torrent, that’s coming tomorrow!

Emergence means the act of coming into view, and I love its multifaceted application in this video: two millennia ago, Jesus emerged physically from his tomb, from death, coming at last into clear focus for one small band of Middle Easterners, who spread the news of his miraculous emergence across the known world, and a new movement was born. And in the name of this risen Jesus, the Christian goes down into and emerges up from the waters of baptism, being born into a new family and a new kingdom.

If you’re intrigued by this piece of Viola’s, I recommend that you watch this fourteen-minute documentary by Mark Kidel, which features rehearsal footage, video clips, and interviews with the artist on Emergence and other works from the series:

I leave you with this dialogue from the third chapter of John’s Gospel:

Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

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4 Responses to Bill Viola’s Emergence as a Picture of the Resurrected Christ and the New Birth of Believers

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