Monday, February 24, 2014

Bill Viola and Carl Gustav Jung’s concept of archetypes

Bill Viola is a video and sound artist whose work has a timeless quality, as he chooses archetypal themes (reminiscent of Jung’s concept of archetypes) such as birth/death/rebirth, body/spirit, fire/water, light/darkness, the unfolding of consciousness etc. Viola’s work integrates knowledge from diverse sources (also a characteristic of Jung’s work) such as art history, psychology, religion, Eastern philosophies and Christian mysticism. “My work”, he says (, “is focused on a process of self-discovery and self-realization. Video is part of my body. It is intuitive and subconscious.” For Viola (Art in Question, 2003, p.82), the medium of video is the ideal way to present archetype images which have a very “direct” and intense effect on the viewer. His view is (p.74) that “the picture is more real than the thing itself” and what he aims to achieve (p.84) is “to bring the inner emotional spiritual eye together with the objective observer eye”.
Carl Gustav Jung was a psychiatrist whose research involved the fields of religion, alchemy, mythology and dreams. Jung was an advocate of Freud’s theories but at a certain point he reacted to Freud’s views which over-emphasized the role of suppressed sexuality as the root of all problems. He created “analytical psychology” and developed his own concepts which emphasized spirituality, the role of religion, dreams, art, cultural expression and the integration of the personality.
Jung proposed (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1968) that besides a personal unconscious there exists a collective unconscious, in which all of humanity’s symbols and experiences are stored- a kind of race memory or “psychic system of a collective, universal, and impersonal nature which is identical in all individuals” (p.43). He encouraged the study of mythology and world cultures and located many similarities which he thought must reveal truths about the human mind- he named these collective truths “archetypes” (the word “archetype” derives from the Greek word “
αρχέτυπο” which means original pattern or original mould). Examples of archetypes include: birth, death, rebirth, the wise old man, the universal mother, the animus, the anima etc.
For Jung (Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype, 1968), the archetypes “(function as) living dispositions that perform and continually influence our thoughts and feelings and actions” and (The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, 1968) “are by no means useless archaic survivals or relics. They are living entities, which cause the preformation of numinous ideas or dormant representations.” He also argues (p.40) that the archetypes are “relatively autonomous; they cannot be integrated simply by rational means.”
Jung’s theory of archetypes helped Viola understand archetypes as a kind of “visual archaeology” of the mind, and become aware that they have the power of transforming a person’s psyche; “that art articulates processes of healing, development or self-realization (and is) a kind of knowledge, an epistemology in its deeper sense, and not just an aesthetic practice”. (

                                       Viola, B. (1992) Nantes Triptych [Video Installation]

An example of Viola’s use of archetype images can be seen in his video installation “Nantes Triptych”. For this installation Viola recorded very personal and intimate moments (the birth of his child, the death of his mother) and presented these experiences as universal experiences/ archetype images. The middle pannel (an ethereal image of a man immersed in water) can be seen as the archetype of rebirth/ spiritual transformation. For Jung (C.G. Jung and the Humanities, p.191) water symbolizes “the spiritual rebirth of the individual through the change into a new individual.”

In Jung’s opinion (C.G. Jung and the Humanities, 1990) no subject is solely personal or solely archetypal, because subjects/images reflect common experiences which can be seen as both personal and archetypal. Stephen A. Martin comments (C.G. Jung and the Humanities, p.177):

What first tips the scale in favour of the archetypal is the experience by the art viewer of powerful feelings of timelessness and truthfulness that seem to emanate from the work itself. They are not attributable to specific subject or style but appear to belong to the very essence of the work and endow it with a living presence. Our response to this intrinsic aliveness is the compulsion to look again and again, as if enchanted by the work in some inexplicable way. This is the felt experience of the numinous, the hallmark of the presence of archetypal meaning in art.

                        Viola, B. (2001). Five Angels for the Millenium [Sound/Video Installation]

Viola not only uses visual archtypes in his work, but also elemental sounds. A characteristic example is his installation "Five Angels for the Millenium" in which sound (as well as image) plays a key role. There are two key elemental sounds (The Art of Bill Viola, 2004, p.158) in this installation: the sound of water (which evokes a sense of “inclusiveness”, “ceremony and ritual”) and the sound of night insects and crickets (which functions as a kind of “drone”). There is also a third elemental sound, a kind of primal noise/ roar, which Viola calls the “sound of being”. He describes it (p.155) as follows:

It is the sound you can hear when you’re standing on a bridge looking at the city, with the evening air still and nothing moving nearby. This under-sound exists at all times, even far out in the desert. Once I had heard it I could never not hear it again. I think of it now as the sound of Being itself.


Barnaby, K. and D’Acierno, P. (eds.) (1990) C.G. Jung and the Humanities: Toward a Hermeneutics of Culture. London: Routledge.
Castro, F. Bill Viola (Aug. 15 2007). Available at:
Jung, C.G. (2005) Modern Man in Search of a Soul. Routledge Classics.
Jung, C.G. (1968) Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Jung, C.G. (1968) The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Routledge.
Raney, K. (ed.) (2003) Art in Question. London: Continuum.
Townsend, C. (ed.) (2004) The Art of Bill Viola. London: Thames & Hudson.
Townsend, C. (1998) Vile Bodies: Photography and the Crisis of Looking. Prestel Verlag.

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