Bill Viloa, ‘Ascension’, 2000

I remember murmurs from visitors, overheard on the opening night of Bill Viola’s Being Time . Visitors from south, from galleries far off, full of praise for the Pier Arts Centre and for the way these four works had been installed—an effortless transformation, apparently. ‘But was there much of a budget?’ one asked. ‘Not very, I understand…’

Earlier this year, delivering a lecture on an exhibition of drawings by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Mel Gooding declared that the Pier was ‘perhaps the best art space in the British Isles’. This was partly a recognition that the gallery will stop at nothing till everything is exactly as it should be. It’s a natural space for these ‘precisely staged and choreographed films’, therefore, though they make it work every time.

Architecturally, one of the gallery’s strengths is its relationship with the surroundings. Throughout, there is a sense of the sea, the harbour, light: rhythms and changes. Now, however, the South Pier is mirrored in plate glass, not visible through it; other windows are blank, disappeared within. An enclosure has been made in the ground floor—a space that introduces other surroundings, by projection and plasma screen. And though LA is half a world away, these works connect, visually and thematically.

And carry their weight, emotionally. As ever, the subject matter both is and is not the point, and the heartrending or consoling moments may come, as in life, from the mundane. Four pairs ‘Four Hands’, 2001, from three generations remind us of our own hands’ capacity for eloquence, as well as for work. Lit as they are here and choreographed, they become other body parts, and whole bodies—guts, worms, cilia, orifices—in continual transformation, like ourselves (‘being like this, inside, too,’ as Jen Hadfield writes). The merest shift may call up a powerful response.

All works date from 2000-2001, when Viola was exploring themes of suffering and transcendence, in response both to his own experience, and to his study of early devotional paintings. There is a religious quality throughout: in the praying hands, the anguish and answering tenderness of ‘Silent Mountain’, the five panels of ‘Catherine’s Room’ (based on a 14th century predella by Andrea di Bartolo—it’s worth reading the account online by Weba Garretson, who plays Catherine), and most dramatically in ‘Ascension’, the only piece not silent, but the beginning of which arrives with the sudden crash into water, of a cruciform figure and surrounding air, forming a shape like a nuclear blast. The muscular shock of this continues until the end, when the shadowed body, empty of breath, has sunk out of sight, the air goldenly continuing to rise.

The works have arrived from different sources—from ARTISTS ROOMS and from Viola’s studio in LA, selected in discussion with the artist and the National Galleries of Scotland. As other, more recent, visitors have found, it’s difficult to believe these works could be better contained than here, in a space on this scale.

Alistair Peebles is a writer and photographer living in Orkney