When the Guggenheim Bilbao first opened its doors on 19 October 1997, it presented an ambitious 300-piece survey of 20th-century art. One such work was Bill Viola’s The Messenger (1996), a looped video installation in which a naked man slowly materialises from a vat of electric blue water. Upon surfacing, he takes a breath, only to descend again and dissolve into a similar state.

Now, almost two decades later, as part of the Guggenheim Bilbao’s 20th anniversary celebrations, the US video art pioneer returns to the museum on a far more more substantial scale with a self-titled retrospective. ‘It’s a journey for the soul,’ said Kira Perov, who spoke on behalf of Viola, her long-term partner and collaborator, at the exhibition’s preview last week. ‘It explores the fundamental experiences of human life, using video as a surrogate eye.’

Spanning 40 years, the show seeks to decode how Viola has used video as a transcendental medium in which to explore the human condition. Themes such as birth, death, rebirth, transformation and consciousness are a constant, stoked by his deep-rooted interest in mystic traditions including Zen Buddhism and Christian mysticism. Typically, his work is slow-moving, cyclical and retains a lush, painterly quality. ‘It reaches out to the spectator, who will connect and interpret the work in many different ways,’ explained the exhibition’s curator Lucía Agirre.

Stills from Fire Woman, by Bill Viola, 2005

This is certainly true of the affective opener: Slowly Turning Narrative (1992), which was recreated especially for the space and comprises a large, two-faced screen (one mirrored) that rotates on a vertical axis. While a close-up of a man’s face is projected, the mirrored side reflects both the footage and its observer. All the while, a deep voice rhythmically chants a list of the states of being. ‘Once you look at something for a long time, especially in slow motion, its essence becomes visible,’ noted Perov, who described the piece as ‘integral’. ‘It becomes an interior for the relevations of a constantly turning mind absorbed with itself,’ said Viola in the accompanying notes.

Elsewhere, more recent works such as Catherine’s Room (2001), Surrender (2001) and The Encounter (2012) highlight how he has consistently commandeered advances in technology – from polyptych displays to rear projections and high-definition film – to gracefully probe the most profound human issues. As Perov attests: ‘Technology is simply a tool, a paintbrush has as much spirituality as a video camera.’

The survey draws to an enlightened close with Inverted Birth (2014), which depicts five stages of awakening through a series of dramatic transformations using different coloured liquids. ‘The fluids represent the essence of human life and the lifecycle from birth to death, here inverted into a shift from darkness to light,’ surmised Viola.

RELATED TOPICS: VIDEO ART, INSTALLATIONS