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Artists Bill Viola
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Bill Viola

American Video Artist

Movements and Styles: Video Art, Installation Art

Born: January 25, 1951 - Queens, NY

Bill Viola Timeline

Quotes

"The honesty of that presence inside you will determine the quality of your work--not ego, filling a market or filling a niche. There is something higher than art."
Bill Viola
"Video treats light like water - it becomes fluid on the video tube. Water supports the fish like light supports man. Land is the death of the fish - darkness is the death of man."
Bill Viola
"We must take time back into ourselves to let our consciousness breathe and our cluttered minds be still and silent. This is what art can do and what museums can be in today's world."
Bill Viola
"What digital technology is giving us is the ability to represent invisible things as well as visible things."
Bill Viola
"Simple facts of life become the way to find a bridge and shared vision with people from different cultures, races, history, and religion,"
Bill Viola
"That's a real important part of human beings, whether it happens in the secular context of a museum or it happens in the religious context of a church or a temple. A communal experience, in the sense of sitting together in silence or standing together in silence is a very special thing. It's people just quietly absorbing a presence in the space. That's part and parcel of what art has been, whether it's used for religious or secular purposes."
Bill Viola
"When you think about eternity, it doesn't mean thinking about being here 1,000 years from now. It means thinking about what you're doing now, because what you do matters. It's part of the fabric of the present moment and always will be."
Bill Viola
"I think that any time you are making something that touches the inner self of the human being, anything that emerges out of ourselves from a genuine, unguarded place is ultimately a sacred act, no matter whether you follow a religion or not."
Bill Viola
"So in today's world, where our lives are filled with so many messages floating all around us and affecting us, art museums are a special place where you can be quiet and still and focus on another person's dreams".
Bill Viola
"We can see the seeds of what some have described as the ultimate recording technology: total spatial storage, with the viewer wandering through some three-dimensional, possibly life-sized field of pre-recorded or simulated scenes and events evolving in time."
Bill Viola
"I realized that my video work as an artist and my private life at that time were the same. It changed my life dramatically."
Bill Viola

"Birth is not a beginning, death is not an end."

Bill Viola Signature

Synopsis

Bill Viola has been referred to as "the Rembrandt of the video age" and, indeed, his work pays homage not only to the famous Dutch master but to the tradition of creating large-scale works of art that draw the viewer into beautifully painted images and compelling narratives. There is often a spiritual component to his work, with elements of Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism underpinning themes considered universal: birth, death, love, sex, grief, and redemption. Viola considers the "phenomena of sense perception" as a path to self-awareness; therefore, his work is a blend of experimental video art and sound, including avant-garde music performance. He was one of the earliest artists to explore the potential of the video camera, which in its most basic form in the 1970s only vaguely resembles the sophisticated devices of today. As one of the pioneers of the medium, he has consistently exploited its rapidly changing technology to create over 150 artworks over the last 40 years.

Key Ideas

For Viola, the video camera functions as a "microscope for being" with which events, from milestones to minutiae, may be fixed in time without the gaps that result from sleep or memory loss or even conscious alteration. With video it is even possible to slow down the otherwise inexorable and rapid progression of time, thus his use of extreme slow motion is a kind of response to the anxiety of being aware of our mortality.
More than simply creating a video that is shown on a screen, Viola created environments that were highly immersive. For instance, his installations almost always incorporate sound, including experimental music, and are typically created and presented in an either darkened or at least otherwise barren exhibition space in order to eliminate any distractions that would prevent the viewer from fully engaging with the work.
Viola's videos are usually sparsely populated and furnished. Including fewer figures and objects shifts the attention to the narrative, which is often the artist's goal: giving visual form to experiences that we cannot normally see or experience.
When he first began producing videos, Viola was intent on "proving something, much like a scientist." He approached the creative process with video art like a "controlled experiment" in which he used the camera to record carefully devised images and narratives. As the technology improved, however, he realized that his approach should basically be the opposite: that he would adapt to the new possibilities presented by technological progress of the medium and be spontaneous, capturing life experiences rather than choreographing them. Rather than creating videos in the controlled environment of the studio, Viola began what would be a career-spanning practice of going out of the studio, turning on his camera, and opening his work to the spontaneity - and routine - of real life.

Most Important Art

Bill Viola Famous Art

Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) (1981)

Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) was produced on a single-channel videotape in color and features stereo sound. It is a 56-minute-long video work, which is comprised of day-to-day recordings made during Viola's travels through the largest, main Japanese island, called Honshu. His journey took him both to densely populated spaces such as Tokyo as well as remote regions like the Osorezan or "Mountain of Souls" region.

Hatsu-Yume has been described as "dreamlike" or reminiscent of the experience of being in a trance. In the piece, the artist melds his own observations about the culture of Japan with a highly personal, spiritual contemplation of nature, life, and death by exploration the relationship of his medium, video, to light and to reflection. Viola mused about the video's symbolism, "Water supports the fish like light supports man. Land is the death of the fish - darkness is the death of man."

Hatsu-Yume refers to Japanese folklore, which regards the first day of the new year as extremely significant. Viola explores that idea as a metaphor for the creation of the world. The video seems to progress from darkness to light, stillness to motion, silence to sound, simplicity to complexity, and nature to civilization. Indeed, Viola's work typically employs the concept of dualities that seem to have universal significance, including light and dark, the ancient and the modern, nature and civilization, object and subject, and rational thought and intuition. Viola wrote about this piece, "I was thinking about light and its relation to water and to life, and also to its opposite - darkness or the night and death. Video," he explained, "treats light like water - it becomes fluid on the video tube."

While he has been criticized for relying on standard symbolism, arguably, Viola tries to subvert the obvious conclusions by playing with duality. For instance, in the work, an enormous rock on the side of a mountain, surely a recognizable symbol of immobility and endurance, seems to change in scale and size as the light changes and time passes. A scene from the city, which should be illuminated with countless lights, instead is lighted by a lone match and on a dark, nighttime sea, fishermen haul in a luminous squid with light as their bait. The video becomes a haunting epic as Viola exploits fully his method of maintaining extreme focus and attention on his subjects, utilizing slow motion to emphasize an extension or compression of time and space.
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Bill Viola Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Early Years

Bill Viola

William "Bill" Viola was born and grew up in Queens, New York. He was a very shy, introverted child and found his internal world far more interesting and engaging than his external world of friends and family. He spent a lot of time drawing and by the age of three, with the help of his mother, he had perfected drawing motorboats. Once in school, the budding young artist received encouragement and validation. He recounted the story later in his life of his kindergarten teacher praising him for a finger painting he had made, holding it up and showing it to the class. Evidently, in response, Bill hid under the table in embarrassment. The teacher put the painting on the wall for everyone to admire and Viola, probably only half seriously, later identified that incident as his first "show." That small gesture of encouragement had a tremendous impact on the shy child, encouraging him to regard himself from that point onward as an artist.

When Viola was six years old, he had a profoundly memorable experience, which deeply affected his life: he fell from a raft on which he had been playing with his cousins and sunk deep into the lake waters below. While submerged, he opened his eyes and observed the beautiful shafts of light coming down through the water, illuminating the organisms floating beneath the surface of the lake. His uncle pulled him from the water to safety but the experience inspired the small boy to consider what lay beneath the surface of life itself and also likely prompted his lifelong preoccupation with water.

In 1969, when Viola was in high school, a generous donor presented a Sony Portapak video camera to the school providing him with an introduction to the medium to which he would devote his artistic career. He recalls being especially intrigued by the blue light emitted by the video camera and connected it to the experience in the lake.

Education and Early Period

After graduating from high school, Viola enrolled at Syracuse University in New York. While he had intended to attend art school, his father urged him to pursue a more conventional liberal arts education. Later, he admitted, "In saying that he saved me. A lot of my friends were planning to go to art school and had I gone with them I would have been at least five years behind." At Syracuse, Viola had access to "all the latest electronic equipment, as well as professors who were at the cutting edge of these new technologies." He knew that most art schools had very limited budgets and he would not have had the opportunity to explore video as an emerging artistic medium.

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Bill Viola Biography Continues

Indeed, Syracuse was one of the first universities to introduce experimental studios for new media. Viola joined a video workshop initiated by a fellow student, Lance Wisniewski, in which participants created projects based on the use of portable video cameras. Fully immersed in the technology, he spent the summer helping put together the new cable-TV system for the university, connecting the cables all across the campus, pulling long cords through manholes, and so on. Later, working as the janitor in the technology center, Viola, who had keys to the building, would spend his nights mastering the new state-of-the-art, color video technology in the studio.

It was at that time that he produced his first video artworks. Most significantly, in 1972 he created Tape I. The video featured Viola's reflection in a mirror; he is looking down the lens just before uttering a blood-curdling scream, after which he destroys the image by placing a finger inside of the tape spool. He later remarked on the period and the work, "It was a time of intense experimentation in all sorts of ways; technological and also in terms of looking at the self, and the video camera played into that. "Viola recognized early on how the video camera had the capacity to reveal things about himself that might not otherwise come to the surface. He explained, "It was not just a matter of pointing it at something. It was about self-knowledge, and the camera could fracture the self. You realize that there are two dimensions: what you see and what you feel, and that was a huge area to explore."

In 1973, Viola received his BFA after having completed his studies in the Experimental Studios of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, including the experimental program, Synapse, which eventually become Citrus TV. He then went to work at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse as an audio-visual technician in the museum's new video department. There he studied with David Tudor, the modernist composer who had at one point worked with John Cage. Starting in 1973 and extending until 1980, he performed repeatedly with David Tudor, the avant-garde composer, in the Rainforest ensemble, which was later renamed the Composers Inside Electronics.

From 1974 to 1976, Viola lived in Florence, Italy and worked as the technical director of production for one of Europe's first video art studios, Art/Tapes/22, run by Maria Gloria Conti Bicocchi. There he met and worked with Richard Serra as well as other video artists, including Vito Acconci, Nam June Paik, and Bruce Nauman, all of whom were sources of influence and inspiration in a medium that was still very much in its infancy. Viola later discussed the reception of video artists by conventional filmmakers. "[They] thought we were idiots and that video would never last." However, that was definitely not the case and instead, diverse video artists began joining together, creating a kind of community after a couple of years. And that's when things began to heat up. He recalled, "We started to get letters from England, France and Asia from people who were working out what this video camera thing could do. We realized that this thing was going on everywhere."

Following his stay in Florence, Viola went on to travel much further east, studying and recording the traditional arts - especially the performing arts - of Java, Bali, the Solomon Islands, and Japan. In 1976, he returned to New York to serve as the artist-in-residence at the WNET Channel 13 Television Laboratory, where he remained until 1980 and produced a series of video works that premiered on television.

Beginning in the early 1970s, Viola began attracting the attention of the art world with his experimental videos. Academic and critical notoriety preceded by more than a decade of broader attention culminated in his first exhibition at a major venue, the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1987. The show, titled Viola: Installations and Videotapes was met with critical praise and was followed by many successful exhibitions on the international artistic stage, including at the Kunsthalle in Dusseldorf, the Whitney Museum in New York City, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.

Having begun receiving recognition for his work, in 1977, Viola was invited to present his video work by the director of cultural arts, Kira Perov, at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. Perov and Viola began a romantic relationship and a year later she joined him in New York. They eventually married and had two children; theirs has been a years-long personal as well as professional collaboration, which has included both traveling and working together. Viola once described the evolution of their working relationship: "In the beginning it was really just me, with Kira doing what I said. But over time she has become like a midwife to the work, checking how the baby is doing, as well as handling all the practicalities of delivery."

The couple traveled to the Sahara Desert in Tunisia in 1979 to make video recordings of mirages. In 1980, Viola was selected for a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship so he and Perov relocated to Japan, where they remained for a year and a half. During his residence in Japan Viola worked in his medium and also studied Zen Buddhism with Master Daien Tanaka. Significantly, he was also the first person to serve as artist in residence at the Atsugi research laboratories at the Sony Corporation.

Once the fellowship in Japan ended in 1981, Viola and Perov returned to the United States. and made their home in Long Beach, California. It was an extremely fertile creative period, albeit distinguished by a broad range of experimentation, including a project involving medical imaging technologies, one at the San Diego Zoo relating to animal consciousness, and an investigation of fire walking rituals of Hindus in Fiji. For nearly half a year, the couple also traveled through the Southwestern United States, where they photographed Native American rock art sites and also used special video equipment to produce recordings of the desert at night.

Mature Period

In 1983, Viola was hired by the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, California to teach Advanced Video courses. Around that same time, he had become increasingly dissatisfied with the work he was producing, felt that he was losing his creative spirit, and that he lacked inspiration. For two years he struggled to continue producing his video art without feeling particularly pleased with the results. Then, in 1988, Viola and Perov's first son was born and simultaneously his mother suddenly fell ill. She died a few years later, in 1991, right around the time that the couple's second son was born.

Those two coinciding events affected Viola in a profound way and ultimately sparked a new period of artistic creativity and deepened spirituality. His focus turned to sorting through home videos and using them to produce some of his most important work of the period, video pieces that focused on the subjects of life and death. Initially, Viola had no intention of incorporating the videos he had made of his mother into his professional work. In fact, he kept the personal videos separate from those he produced for his artistic career; that is, until after his mother's death, at which time, he explained, "I realized I was an artist and I should do what I was set up to do, so I took all my home movies into the studio and I finished the next piece of work as if I was on fire and asked myself why I hadn't done this before." A video he produced during that period following his mother's death, Nantes Triptych (1992), which was eventually purchased by the Tate, features images of Viola's dying mother as well as a man underwater and a woman in labor.

Viola represented the United States in 1995 at the 46th Venice Biennale, where he presented his video series titled Buried Secrets. One of the works in the series, The Greeting, echoes his embracing of the artistic tradition, particularly that of the old masters. It is an interpretation of Jacopo Pontormo's The Visitation (1528) over which is imposed a modern narrative in slow motion. Viola, who had throughout his college years and early career, rejected for the most part artistic tradition, a pivotal experience during a visit to the Art Institute of Chicago inspired him to think again about the value of the artistic past in both personal and professional regards. During that particular visit in Chicago, he passed through different galleries until he found himself in one in which 15th-century paintings were on display. Standing before Dieric Bouts' painting, the Weeping Madonna (1480-1500), he felt that he was interacting directly with the painting. He was so moved that he found himself weeping in front of the picture. For Viola, the artwork had almost miraculous spiritual properties; for him, it had transformed from a beautifully painted devotional object into a private emotional experience.

The awakening that he felt in the gallery of old masters' paintings turned out to be, in a sense, a step back in a positive sense for Viola. He had attempted throughout his career to produce artwork that incorporated the frequent technological advances of his medium but afterwards he was urged to slow down, to look to the past and tradition, particularly painting, for inspiration. Although he confessed to having "hated" old masters' works when he was a student, he said of his apparent change of heart, "My appreciation of older art had started to grow before my mother passed away, and when my father died at the end of the 1990s I felt helpless and was looking for consolation. Although I'd never gone that way before, at that moment it was the most logical thing to do." Viola's Passions (2003) series in a sense marks his experience, he said, of "coming to grips with the loss of my parents and being awakened to what death really means. And therefore what existence really means."

In 2000, Viola was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In keeping with his incorporation of traditional painting and themes, his 2002 work, Going Forth By Day, took the form of a digital "fresco" cycle that explored the "cycles of human existence - birth, death and rebirth - through the different phases in each video with audio accompaniment."

Viola has continued producing both video and musical works. In 2004, he collaborated with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and director Peter Sellars on a production of Wagner's opera, Tristan and Isolde, which was first presented by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in project form and then premiered in full in 2005 at the Paris Opera. It features, says one review, "Viola's distinctive exquisitely detailed high-resolution slow-motion imagery emphasizes effects of water and fire and subjects' interaction with them."

Throughout the 2000s, Viola has continued to exhibit around the world and, as of 2014, a number of his works including Eternal Return (2000) and Witness (2001) rank in the top five highest selling video artworks to date, with the former coming in at over $700,000 at auction. As the technology has changed, his work has also transformed. Of the integral relationship between his life and his preferred art form, Viola explained, "Video and I grew up together. As the equipment improved over the years, I was able to see some of my pieces finally shown the way that I had envisioned them. And new tools, especially projectors and flat screens, gave me new inspiration, and constantly expanded my palette."

Most recently, Viola has seen several of his works installed in important sacred Christian sites. The Messenger was first presented at Durham Cathedral in 1996 and a series of works showed at Bern Cathedral in German in 2014. Both were temporary installations unlike his multimedia installations, Martyrs (2014) and Mary (2016) both of which are permanent works commissioned by St. Paul's Cathedral in collaboration with the Tate Museum.


Legacy

Bill Viola was instrumental in establishing video art as a viable medium in contemporary art. Ironically, in the course of his career, Viola's work has moved from the status of edgy and experimental to a cross between polished and cinematic and nostalgic in its referencing of already obsolete video-related technology like the graininess of early video. Video artists such as Douglas Gordon with his piece, 24 Hour Psycho (1993), which slowed down the classic Hitchcock film and presented it on an enormous screen, owe much to Viola, whose trademark slow motion style lends significance to even the most mundane of activities. Likewise, Matthew Barney's increasingly larger scale, cinematic (and some would say quite overblown) works that rely heavily on archetypal figures, symbolic meaning, and common "universal" themes like birth, death, and sexuality owe much to Viola's development of his own art from the fairly simple and intimate interactions encouraged by his early installations to the grand productions of more recent years.

In more general terms, Viola's willingness to take up the video camera, explore the possibilities of the new medium, and combine the intimacy of family home videos with the grandiosity of his later works from the mid-1990s onward, has opened the field for subsequent video artists to experiment broadly without having to constantly defend the legitimacy of their medium.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Bill Viola
Interactive chart with Bill Viola's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Nam June PaikNam June Paik
Joseph BeuysJoseph Beuys
Mark RothkoMark Rothko
Alberto GiacomettiAlberto Giacometti
Bruce NaumanBruce Nauman

Friends

David TudorDavid Tudor

Movements

RenaissanceRenaissance
BaroqueBaroque
Bill Viola
Bill Viola
Years Worked: 1970s - present

Artists

Matthew BarneyMatthew Barney
Janet BiggsJanet Biggs
Gary HillGary Hill

Friends

David RossDavid Ross

Movements

Video ArtVideo Art
Installation ArtInstallation Art

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Useful Resources on Bill Viola

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Bill Viola

By John G. Hanhardt

written by artist

Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994

By Bill Viola

More Interesting Books about Bill Viola
Bill Viola

By Alan Rifkin
Los Angeles Times
January 28, 2007

Liberation of the Senses

By Gerard Wright
The Sydney Morning Herald
April 5, 2008

Timeless Themes Suddenly Timely

By Grace Glueck
The New York Times
September 27, 2002

Art Review: Themelessness

By Mark Stevens
New York Magazine
November 2002

More Interesting Articles about Bill Viola

interviews

Inside Story: Bill Viola

By Laura Gascoigne
June, 2014

Interview with Bill Viola

By Ashley Rawlings
Novermeber, 11, 2006

Bill Viola in Conversation with Michael Nash

June 30, 1990

Bill Viola Interview

By Nate Archer
November 7, 2007

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