Ascension opens with a dark field of water, punctuated by a shaft of cutting sunlight. This calm expanse is suddenly disturbed by the dramatic plunging of a fully clothed man. With his arms raised laterally like those of Christ on the cross, the diver first floats toward the surface and then descends out of the field of vision. The dramatic sounds, turbulent waters, and swarm of air bubbles give way to the original deep-blue void, the sparkling sunlight again infusing the water with an otherworldly glow.

Bill Viola is one of the pioneers of video art. Post-production, he extended Ascension’s entire sequence, which was only a few seconds in real time, into 10 minutes of extreme duration. With such a contradictory play between title and image—Ascension is an image of a man descending, after all—Viola sets up a series of dualities. Why, he asks, do we believe that heaven is above and hell below? Like the man in this video, the viewer is also immersed in the artist’s visual field. For Viola, water is both a vehicle and a site for altered consciousness and spiritual reawakening.


  • Title: Ascension
  • Creator: Bill Viola
  • Creator Lifespan: 1951
  • Creator Nationality: American
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Date Created: 2000
  • Type: Video
  • Rights: © Bill Viola
  • External Link: MFAH
  • Medium: Single-channel color video and stereo-sound installation, 10-minute continuous loop
  • Credit Line: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by Nina and Michael Zilkha in honor of Fayez Sarofim on the occasion of their tenth wedding anniversary

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