Time in Bill Viola and Yuan Goangming’s works

Apr 2016

Baker suggested, ‘technology is both temporal and temporalizing, as it manifest as a process that occurs over time, which simultaneously creates temporal experiences.’ (Baker, p.37)    

This paper looks at the practices of two media artists – Bill Viola and Yuan Goangming.  Their works are different in terms of context, technique, subject matter, visual elements; something in common is that they both employ video as their main artistic medium, which engage them with time and temporality investigation.

Whitehead suggested that ‘time is a product of the process of actual entities, and it is this concept of time as produced by process that is central to a temporal aesthetics of digital art.  It allows us to speak of a temporality that is produced in our processual and eventful encounters with the archiving function of vast databases and the nonlinearity and networking capabilities of digital systems.’ (Baker, p.46)

Bill Viola (b. 1951) is an American video artist, with a religious background, his work explores themes of mortality and spiritual transformation, as well as emotions.  Throughout decades of art practice, he investigates into the ‘possibilities of these new artistic tools led to some of the most unique and affecting artworks of the last three decades’. (Furlong, p.155)  For Viola, time for human beings is limited, because there is a beginning and end to every human life.  Time itself is related to transformation and change, which is one of the issues he deals with in his practice.  Time becomes an important element, it can be approached and experienced in various levels in his works. (Furlong, p.156-7)

Yuan Goangming (b. 1965) is a Taiwanese video artist, his works investigates living conditions of human beings, often with the use of symbolic metaphors.  Yuan’s practice involves experiments with various media techniques and presentations to create engaging visual experience.  He began with video works to experiment with its forms and presentation, then moved onto interactive media, digital photography, and later back to video and moving images research.  The artist regards his works as a way to demonstrate and represent reality, as well as memory, and as a way to investigate the notion of time.

Scale of time

Both Viola and Yuan scale the time in their works, Viola’s works do not go along with the traditional film language, they are not edited to create a storyline nor in a chronological manner.  
In his Anthem (1983), a video of 11:30 minutes, with full color and sound.  He manipulated the energy of the video by scaling its temporal rhythm – one of the shots where a girl screams at the train station in slow motion, keeps reappearing in between other relatively short shots, this creates a never-ending loop and a sense of repeatedness.  The video begins with a slow montage of relatively motionless quiet shots, then it runs faster.  The shots are in different tempos, and they are visually different, with mechanical objects, people, closeup of body parts etc… to represent different events.  The collection of contrasting shots creates two sets of durational events of different tempos that present two scales of time concurrently, with one linked to the other, this is what Whitehead called ‘nested duration’.  By repeating the screaming girl shot in between multiple other shots, the artist creates an illusion of different things happening rapidly during the time when the girl was screaming, and demonstrates Bergson’s simultaneity of time and its non-­sequential nature.

Similarly, Yuan used repeating shots in his work Before Memory (2011), a 4-channel video installation.  The work begins with flickering empty screens with white noise, then a nighttime seaview appears and disappears into the water.  Apart from flickers and the sea, there are shots of the forest, abandoned buildings, inside the bushes; which appear and reappear in different angles and various tempos.  In between them, a shot of floating clouds on a sunny day is repeated, where the clouds move rapidly in fast motion.  The clouds moves spectators away from the contemporaneity of the rest of the images; when inserted in between other shots, the eternal fast moving clouds becomes a symbol to denote the continuous process of life – under the ever changing condition, the new present is always created.

Like Whitehead’s idea of ‘each instant in time – and everything that exists in that instant – is a new creational the world is a process of continual becoming’. (Baker, p.36)  From the juxtaposition of shots with different tempo, the reality is presented in a nonlinear manner, it shows that the artist goes with Bergson’s idea of duree, where time is continuous, like a river – it infiltrates, fuses, and combines into an inseparable, eternal transformation and movement. (Yuan)

When spectator experience the work, they are presented with the representation of the past (time when video was shot) at the present (time when viewing the artwork), according to Whitehead, an actual occasion is created.  And Baker explained this relationship of the spectator and the viewing of artwork in  connection with time – ’constituted by the lingering effect of the past in the present, felt as both Bergson’s memory-images and also as the digital and physical occasions of interaction affect our perception of images in the present’, the spectator in his own everyday temporal is also ‘temporalized when he or she comes into contact with the multi-temporality of digital systems’ (Baker, p.63)  The viewing experience opens up an overlapping time and space for the spectators, where the present becomes a mix of the past and the present in different tempos, and a passage for travelling to and from multi-temporality is created.  The difference of everyday tempo from the manipulated tempo in a work, generates a unique experience at the time when spectator views the artwork; because of the difference in tempos, spectators are more aware of the presence of time during the viewing.   

Slow motion and tracking shot

Viola employs a lot of slow motion techniques in his video works to magnify emotions to allow contemplation and experience.  The artist further pinpointed and highlighted the emotions in some of his works like The Greeting (1995), The Quintet of the Astonished  (2000), and Emergence (2002), where each of the videos is entirely in slow motion.  

The Greeting (1995) was shot on 35mm analog film, Viola manipulates the film rate by shooting the at 300 frames per second, he continued to shot in a high frame rate in his later digital videos.  The artist explained, ‘within one second I’ve got 300 increments of motion to record, and so their movement is incredibly fluid, rather than stepped.  I think this adds to the feeling that the action is happening now in a totally fluid, continuous time.  I’ve called this the temporal magnifying-glass effect, whereby you hold the magnifying glass up to time and, because we have been given a specific time rate to function on, we perceive things at a certain rate.’ (Furlong, p.157)

In cinema, slow motion functions as special effects, it slows down a rapid action, speed is usually highlighted in contrast to the slow motion effect.  The iconic slow motion application in Viola’s works creates a different effect from the usual cinematic experience – instead of focusing on the speed or the action itself, the expansion of time creates a ‘continual trace or nexus’ (Baker, p.41) that Whitehead suggested is how the becoming of continuity is constituted.  When each of the frames exchange information with one another over time to transit to the next frame, and create a series of becomings that allow spectators to experience the passage of time.  Being in between movie and still, Viola’s videos create extended duration, which provide opportunities for spectators to experience the emotion as Deleuzian continuous processes.  In The Quintet of the Astonished  (2000) where the slow motion not only opens up allows spectators to recognize the process of the continuous change in emotion, but also allows them to experience the Whiteheadian ‘passage of time’ (Baker, p.41).

Slow motion technique does not appear in Yuan’s works as prominent as in Viola’s, in his video Dwelling (2014), Yuan captures a quiet and peaceful living room of a middle-class household that explodes in slow motion and swifty rewinds to intact in a few seconds.  His use of slow motion in this work creates a different effect from Viola’s, where it acts as a catalyst to dramatize the visual effects, as well as provides a mental space for absorbing the visual information.  

In other works like Before Memory (2011), Disappearing Landscape – Passing II (2011), and Landscape of energy stillness (2014), Yuan extends time in his works with is slow tracking shots.  By slowing down time, Yuan provides a longer moment for the spectators to perceive the image, and for the brain to recognise the subtle absurdity in the visuals.  

The work Disappearing Landscape – Passing II (2011), is a collection of shots of trees, water, urban ruins, houses and landscapes.  The work was shot with three video cameras fixed on a cable, moved on a horizontal track, which created a ‘passing through’ effects among different space.  The video begins with a wide, serenic view of the sea, the lens keep moving forward and closer to the water until it finally immersed into the water.  Yuan intends to bring spectators to ‘pass a present moment’, he explained, ‘the work is in continuous tense, but not past tense, and it is revealing some meaning about elapsing’ (Yuan).  The artist attempts to pass through moment and unfold time with the slow forward tracking shots, while he ‘rewinds’ from time to time with his backward (reverse) shots and move into the past (back in time), but this ‘past’ appears a little different from the past that seen a moment ago – the path is the same, but something changed – the light, people, objects… appearing, disappearing; and it is also in accordance to Bergson’s theory about ‘the past must necessarily contain traces of the present, and that the present must also contain traces of the future… as non-representational forces that are intertwined with each becoming of the present(Baker, p.62).  Matching Whitehead’s idea of the existence of actual entity within the extensive continuum of actual entity of the past, where extensive continuum exists in virtuality (Baker, p.46), the artist’s work presented a strange status of existence, which represents both the past, the present and the abstract relation between them (Yuan).  Yuan’s work is an on-going waltz between virtuality and actuality in time.

When viewed as a 3-channels video installation, spectators follow the first slow then fast forward and backward movement of the lens, and trespass time and space – from present to the time in between.  The physical presence of the spectator at the installation space, adds another dimension to Yuan’s work, as the everyday tempo of the spectator is added into the mix.  The slow forward shots in the earlier part of the video becomes virtual at the spectator’s present, when the shots reappear in the later part of the work, they create nested temporal relations between the spectator and the video itself, and affect the perception of images in the present. As Baker suggested, ‘the human user is temporal in regards to his or her sensory activities but also temporalized as he or she comes into contact with the multi-temporality of digital systems’ (Baker, p.63).

Yuan’s back-and-forth treatment compliments his scaling of time, and further enhanced in his works.  The technique creates anticipation on every step of the way, where at every moment there is a chance of going forward, backward, faster or slower, which brings an emphasis on presence and possibilities.  At the same time, his works induce higher level of complexities within the work itself and during the viewing experience.  Under the everyday tempo, spectators immerse in an array of time scales in the video installation and move around in different temporals of the video, they follow and go forward with the lens to experience the becoming of the present, and backward with the immediate past that becomes the present.  The act of seeing the forward shots becomes an immediate past for the spectator, which he realises when he views the backward shots – the shifting between past and present not only happens within the video, but also during the spectator’s viewing of the video.  As the work creates a continuous flow of present moments represented by series of past and present visually, and a series of immediate past experienced by the spectator – the overlapping of pasts and presents throughout the viewing keeps spectators active in defining the present.

With different context and interests, the video works by Viola and Yuan are visually diversed.  The application of scale of time and time manipulation techniques highlight time and present in their works.  Both of them create multiple durations by using repeating shots in between shots of different tempos; Viola magnifies the process of time with his slow motion, frame by frame presentation, Yuan opts for the tracking shots to pass through time.  The time scaling in their works creates an unique viewing experience for spectators – when looking at the videos, they experience the unfolding of time in the video while undergoing the past and present of their usual everyday time – the streams of past and present that flow within artwork as well as between spectator and artwork creates an invisible bubble wrapping around the spectators and the artwork.




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