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Bill Viola Photo

Bill Viola

American Video Artist

Born: January 25, 1951 - Queens, NY
"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."
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"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."
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"Renaissance artists were exploring the same thing. The renaissance was a meeting of science and art. Perspective would have seemed like computer CGI graphics now."
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"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."
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"What digital technology is giving us is the ability to represent invisible things as well as visible things."
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"Simple facts of life become the way to find a bridge and shared vision with people from different cultures, races, history, and religion,"
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"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."
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"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."
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"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."
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"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"."
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"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."
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"I realized that my video work as an artist and my private life at that time were the same. It changed my life dramatically."
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Summary of Bill Viola

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.


  • 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.

Biography of Bill Viola

Bill Viola Photo

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.

Important Art by Bill Viola

Progression of Art

Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)

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.

HD Video (Color, Sound)


Room for St. John of the Cross

For this video and sound installation, Viola created a small black cubicle with a window through which viewers can peer to regard a miniature color monitor sitting on a wooden table alongside a metal pitcher and a glass of water. The screen displays a color image of a snow-covered mountain while a recorded voice quietly recites poetry, which speaks of love, ecstasy, flying and escape through the night. The poems Viola used for this piece were written in 1577 by the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross while he was held prisoner in a small, dark, and windowless cell and intermittently tortured for nine months during the Spanish Inquisition. Outside of the black cubicle is a large projection on the gallery wall of snow-covered mountains moving chaotically as if caught in a storm. A roaring sound accompanies these moving images.

Viola's interest in the mysticism of various religious traditions led him to the story of St. John of the Cross, whose disturbing prognostications via poetry he found both deeply unsettling and inspiring. This work marks a decisive moment in Viola's career when he introduced his most enduring goal: to restructure the audience's perceptions of time and space with the use of technology and new media. His contention that sleep and memory both create the impression that there are gaps in the experience of time and that video seems to undermine that perception in its seeming ability to capture the passage of time in an uninterrupted way. By separating the aural and different aspects of the visual in the work - both compartmentalizing and rendering epic the latter, Viola attempts to create the conditions for restructuring memory. All of the input the viewer receives is coming in simultaneously but also separately in this fascinating conceptualization of sense experience.

Video/Sound Installation


Heaven and Earth

This installation resembles a pillar that extends from floor to ceiling in the exhibition space, ostensibly as a structural support. The structure is actually comprised of wood, the stripped down tubes of a pair of black-and-white video monitors, and metal brackets that support the screens and connect them to the wood.

The top screen, which is suspended from the portion of the pillar connected with the ceiling - or "Heaven," as the title implies - displays a close-up image of an old woman, the artist's mother, who lies in a coma and in the last week of her life. Her face is blank and her half-closed eyes seem lifeless. The lower screen, which is anchored to the earth via the wooden column constitutes the "Earth" component of the work, the counterpart or opposite of the other screen. This video features a newborn baby, Viola's son, looking around curiously, albeit with the limited vision of a neonate.

Heaven and Earth was produced in the midst of a profound existential crisis in Viola's life: his mother died shortly before his son was born. The close proximity of the screens suggests that the birth of the infant and the death of the elderly woman are inextricably linked as the images of each figure are reflected on the opposing screen, merging in a sense. The glass of the monitors creates the illusion that the images on the screens are conjoined, at least tenuously, a concept that relates to Buddhist philosophy, which sees birth and death as one rather than as separate experiences and also as cyclical. Indeed, the theme of continuity plays a critical role in the work as the pillar is meant to be perceived as continuous. However, Viola's emphasis on duality emerges here as well in the slight gap between the two screens.

Video Installation (Monitors, Wood Column, Black & White Video) - 9 1/2 x 16 1/8 x 18 ft


The Crossing

The Crossing is a large, two-channel color video installation that incorporates sound. It is comprised of two looped, 10-minute-and-57-second videos that are displayed on a large (just over life-size), two-sided screen. Two distinct yet similar videos are projected onto the separate sides of the screens. Viola shot both videos using high-speed film (registering 300 frames per second) and radically slowed down the playback speed to achieve extreme slow motion and to enhance the drama.

On one side of the screen, a man in khaki pants and a blue button up shirt walks slowly toward the audience then pauses. Suddenly, a trickle of water begins to fall on his head and gradually the flow increases until it becomes torrential. As the flow of the water subsides, it becomes apparent that the man has disappeared completely. The water becomes a mere trickle once again and then only blackness remains.

On the opposing screen, the same man walks similarly, slowly towards the audience. He pauses and a small fire ignites beneath his feet. The flame grows gradually until the figure is completely engulfed in a raging fire. As the flames subside, this man, too, has disappeared and, like the opposite video, once the flames subside, only darkness remains.

Viola uses large-scale projection, extreme slow motion, and precise sound editing and looping to create his visual rendition of the unfolding of events within the vastness of time. The almost painfully slow pace also urges the viewer to be patient, to concentrate, and to consider how much of life is comprised of just this kind of seemingly uneventful waiting that is actually rife with detail if one pauses and contemplates sufficiently.

In The Crossing, Viola uses the very obvious - and, critics have argued, somewhat cliche - fire and water symbolism to represent creation and destruction, which is reminiscent of many spiritual and religious traditions. Fire and water are also intended to represent change, redemption, transformation, and renewal, while the disappearing figures symbolize the destruction of the ego.

These dramas seem to unfold in a place beyond the real world where time comes nearly to a standstill and critic Lisa Slade applauds Viola for "breaking down 'the three second effect' (the average time that viewers give to artworks in galleries)." In contrast, critic Ken Bolton "acknowledges the beauty of the work" but asserts that Viola's grander works like The Crossing are "ponderous and emptily portentous" and critic Mike Ladd wonders whether the artist's incorporation of mysticism may be "dogma in disguise." Such conflicting analyses of his work emphasize at the least that it inspires complex responses in viewers.

Video and sound installation - 16 ft. x 27 ft. 6 inches x 57 feet


Going Forth By Day

Viola's complex, Going Forth By Day, is actually comprised of five separate videos, all of which were produced using on high-definition video technology. Each video is 35 minutes long, looped, and projected directly onto the gallery walls. The five videos play simultaneously in the space. The audience enters the installation by passing into the light of the videos. Each video tells a story of a different phase of human life, which collectively becomes a cohesive narrative.

The first video is Fire Birth, and features a figure who seemingly struggles for rebirth in a reddish orange water. In the next video, The Path, a panoramic projection, a line of people moves slowly along a trail leading through a forest scene. The procession seems to be endless. In the third video, The Deluge, a torrent of water rushes through a building, sending people inside fleeing outside, some being washed away while others escape seemingly unharmed. Viola titled the fourth video, The Voyage, as it features an elderly man who is dying, surrounded by his family, as a boat below filled with his possessions awaits him. In the final video, First Light, rescue workers are resting for the day beside a pond as a ghostly figure ascends from the water. Each projection can be experienced independently or the entire installation can be absorbed as a whole.

The overall work takes its title from the literal translation of the title of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which is "The Book of Going Forth by Day." The Book of the Dead was intended to function as a guide for the soul once it was released from the body, assisting it in its efforts to "go forth by the light of day." Once again, Viola muses on the subject of the natural cycles of rebirth and regeneration while exploring the concept of individuality versus society.

Because it is presented in extremely slow motion, there is the sense that what the viewer is actually looking at is a series of paintings on display on the gallery walls. As such, it harkens back to frescos from the 14th and 15th centuries painted by Giotto and Signorelli (among others), which were full of images of hellfire, floods, earthquakes, tidal waves, and so forth. Indeed, the work of Old Masters, particularly those from the Italian Renaissance, is echoed in the monumentality of these videos, the rich, full color, and the emphasis on the narrative - on telling a story without text. Viola's work made up of multiple videos is a 21st-century rendition of such imagery, which was deeply influential for him.

In addition to being moved by the images he saw as he wandered through the churches of Florence in particular, Viola was affected by the acoustics of those sacred spaces. Consequently, he went from place to place, from tiny churches to cathedrals, making recordings of ambient sound. Perov explained, "He was interested in the architecture of the cavernous spaces, and how sound bounces around and is altered by the volume of the archways and domes. His videos," like those that make up Going Forth By Day, "are full of ambient sound; sound that does not represent anything in particular but at the same time is familiar."

Video Installation


Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)

Martyrs, a high definition video installation incorporating four plasma screens set on carbon-steel frames, emphasizes the extent of the technological progress of Viola's chosen medium and, furthermore, his efforts through the years to embrace innovation while simultaneously paying homage to tradition in the visual arts, especially painting.

Like artists who have come before him, Viola was commissioned by the church - in this case, St. Paul's Cathedral in London - to create monumental works for permanent display. This work was joined in 2016 by a second one, Mary, which evokes the countless representations of the Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of her martyred son, Jesus, on her lap - the centuries-old pietà ("pity") theme. "The result of this commission," says the church's website, "sees St. Paul's Cathedral, which has always spearheaded the engagement of great artists, house a resonant work of art for our times. Martyrs (and later, Mary), will play an important role in connecting contemporary issues with the timeless themes embodied in the cathedral." Of course, very few avant-garde and experimental artists have been hired by main-stream (rather traditionally-minded) churches in the era of Modern and Contemporary art, so Viola's commission at St. Paul's is that much more triumphant.

The four different videos are looped and last seven minutes and 15 seconds; they run simultaneously. In this work, four human figures, one on each screen, undergo different methods of torture - of martyrdom. One has a figure being buried alive; another hangs with wrists and ankles bound; a third figure is engulfed in flames; a final figure is hanging upside-down while being drenched with water. Images in Christian art from the Middle Ages onward of martyrs being subjected to various forms of torture - from crucifixion to immolation - are directly referenced quite unapologetically in this 21st-century version. As the work opens, explains Viola, these four figures "are shown in stasis, a pause from their suffering. Gradually there is movement in each scene as an element of nature begins to disturb their stillness." Subjected to extreme conditions like "flames raining down" and a roiling earth, the martyrs remain strong in their resolve, which is perhaps the most significant message intended by the artist.

The four images side-by-side evoke the multi-paneled paintings or polyptychs that hung prominently over altars starting in the medieval period. Viola has heightened the experience of being in the cathedral by offering visitors and worshipers a dramatic visual contemplation on life, death, and the afterlife, as well as the human capacity to endure hardship in the name of faith. As the viewer observes this violent drama unfolding in this piece featuring images that might just have easily have been seen in centuries past, although in static form, on magnificently painted panels, they are meant to witness, says Viola, "the darkest hour of the martyr's passage through death into the light."

Video Installation - St Paul's Cathedral

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Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Bill Viola Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 17 Jan 2017. Updated and modified regularly
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