Bill Viola

Bill Viola (b.1951) is internationally recognized as one of today’s leading artists. He has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. For over 35 years he has created videotapes, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, flat panel video pieces, and works for television broadcast. Viola’s video installations—total environments that envelop the viewer in image and sound—employ state-of-the-art technologies and are distinguished by their precision and direct simplicity. They are shown in museums and galleries worldwide and are found in many distinguished collections. His single channel videotapes have been widely broadcast and presented cinematically, while his writings have been extensively published, and translated for international readers. Viola uses video to explore the phenomena of sense perception as an avenue to self-knowledge. His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism. Using the inner language of subjective thoughts and collective memories, his videos communicate to a wide audience, allowing viewers to experience the work directly, and in their own personal way.

Bill Viola received his BFA in Experimental Studios from Syracuse University in 1973 where he studied visual art with Jack Nelson and electronic music with Franklin Morris. During the 1970s he lived for 18 months in Florence, Italy, as technical director of production for Art/Tapes/22, one of the first video art studios in Europe, and then traveled widely to study and record traditional performing arts in the Solomon Islands, Java, Bali, and Japan. Viola was invited to be artist-in-residence at the WNET Channel 13 Television Laboratory in New York from 1976-1980 where he created a series of works, many of which were premiered on television. In 1977 Viola was invited to show his videotapes at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia) by cultural arts director Kira Perov who, a year later, joined him in New York where they married and began a lifelong collaboration working and traveling together.

In 1979 Viola and Perov traveled to the Sahara desert, Tunisia to record mirages. The following year Viola was awarded a U.S./Japan Creative Artist Fellowship and they lived in Japan for a year and a half where they studied Zen Buddhism with Master Daien Tanaka, and Viola became the first artist-in-residence at Sony Corporation’s Atsugi research laboratories. Viola and Perov returned to the U. S. at the end of 1981 and settled in Long Beach, California, initiating projects to create art works based on medical imaging technologies of the human body at a local hospital, animal consciousness at the San Diego Zoo, and fire walking rituals among the Hindu communities in Fiji. In 1987 they traveled for five months throughout the American Southwest photographing Native American rock art sites, and recording nocturnal desert landscapes with a series of specialized video cameras. More recently, at the end of 2005, they journeyed with their two sons to Dharamsala, India to record a prayer blessing with the Dalai Lama.

Music has always been an important part of Viola’s life and work. From 1973-1980 he performed with avant-garde composer David Tudor as a member of his Rainforest ensemble, later called Composers Inside Electronics. Viola has also created videos to accompany music compositions including 20th century composer Edgard Varèse’ Déserts in 1994 with the Ensemble Modern, and, in 2000, a three-song video suite for the rock group Nine Inch Nails’ world tour. In 2004 Viola began collaborating with director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen to create a new production of Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, which was presented in project form by the Los Angeles Philharmonic in December 2004, and later at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, New York (2007). The complete opera received its world premiere at the Opéra National de Paris, Bastille in April 2005.

Since the early 1970s Viola’s video art works have been seen all over the world. Exhibitions include Bill Viola: Installations and Videotapes, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987; Bill Viola: Unseen Images, seven installations toured six venues in Europe, 1992-1994, organized by the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Kira Perov. Viola represented the U.S. at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995 with Buried Secrets, a series of five new installation works. In 1997 the Whitney Museum of American Art organized Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey that included over 35 installations and videotapes and traveled for two years to six museums in the United States and Europe. In 2002 Viola completed his most ambitious project, Going Forth By Day, a five part projected digital “fresco” cycle, his first work in High-Definition video, commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Bill Viola: The Passions, a new series inspired by late medieval and early Renaissance art, was exhibited at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles in 2003 then traveled to the National Gallery, London, the Fondación “La Caixa” in Madrid and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. One of the largest exhibitions of Viola’s installations to date, Bill Viola: Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) (2006-2007), drew over 340,000 visitors to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. In 2007 nine installations were shown at the Zahenta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; and Ocean Without a shore was created for the 15th century Church of San Gallo during the Venice Biennale. In 2008 Bill Viola: Visioni interiori, a survey exhibition organized by Kira Perov, was presented in Rome at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni.

Viola is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989, and the first Medienkunstpreis in 1993, presented jointly by Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, and Siemens Kulturprogramm, in Germany. He holds honorary doctorates from Syracuse University (1995), The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1997), California Institute of the Arts (2000), and Royal College of Art, London (2004) among others, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000. In 1998 Viola was invited to be a Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles and in 2009 received the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts, MIT. In 2006 he was awarded Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. Bill Viola and Kira Perov, his wife and long-time collaborator, live and work in Long Beach, California.

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Liberation of the Senses | Bill Viola in Sydney

LOW and lonely, hot and empty, Death Valley, a four-hour drive north-west of Los Angeles, is nature’s altar and gallery. Here, the passage of time is marked by the silent movement of shadows and the wind’s sculpting of sand dunes. The 180-degree parabola of the sun’s passage can be tracked without interruption or respite.

Video artist Bill Viola first came to Death Valley with a friend in 1973. A child of the green summers and freezing winters of New York, he had just graduated from university. He was 21, a student of religions. He stood in the middle of a salt flat, simultaneously inconsequential and enveloping, and felt his horizons extend.

“For the first time in my life I felt like my senses were liberated,” he remembers. “I felt completely open. I felt part of me was going out that hundred miles to the mountain range and encompassing that whole thing. I get goosebumps just thinking about it.

“At a certain point I became frightened. I felt like the landscape was so vast, if I got lost out here, they would never find me. And God could come down and [as if I was] a little bug, just flick me away.

“And those two realisations: that you are connected deeply to the entire cosmos and at the same time you are mortal and you are fragile and inconsequential; the search for meaning that human beings have been engaged with since the beginning of time is part of the reconciliation of those two things.”

There is the landscape, there is imagination and the greatest works of the greatest painters of our time. Connecting them is Bill Viola, his video camera and a flickering image on the wall of a museum, art gallery, church or even a handheld communications device with a screen the size of a matchbox – each of them, at various times, the medium through which his work appears.

He’s not just any video artist but the video artist, says Ann Roberts, an art history professor at Lake Forest College in Chicago, recalling Viola’s re-imagining of Jacopo da Pontormo’s Visitation (1528-29), as The Greeting.

“One of the few real pioneers,” says Glenn Phillips, a curator at the Getty Museum of Los Angeles.

Viola’s work has been chosen to represent the US at the Venice Biennale, with other tours to Europe through the Whitney Museum of New York, Japan and Australia. His pieces have given a separate dimension to the soundscapes of Edgard Varese and the operas of Richard Wagner, as well as providing stage backdrops for a world tour by the rock group Nine Inch Nails.

Viola will be in Sydney this week to present three pieces from his LOVE/DEATH: The Tristan Project, for the Art Gallery of NSW. Two of them, Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension, will be shown at St Saviour’s Church in Redfern from April 9 to May 17. The third, Fall Into Paradise, will be shown at the gallery from April 10 to July 27.

The presentation at St Saviour’s – a John Kaldor Art Project – will, in essence, show the multiple layers of Viola’s artistic approach, with each 10-minute piece on a continuous loop on a 6m x 3m vertical screen, inside the church.

Phillips notes that every viewer has been conditioned, almost from infancy, to respond to, and later to read, the meaning of a moving image. “When you’re in a vast space and see these large images, you do have a visceral response,” he says. To that is added the visions of fire and water, with which people connect in the most primitive way. The images were shot on high-definition cameras, then edited to make the sequence improbable and artistic in a way that delights museums, galleries and audiences the world over.

Then there is the viewing of his videos, which Viola aims to present as something more than a visual and sound experience.

“When I show in a church, that work is automatically set into a context that encourages contemplation and contemplation is a special human trait,” the artist says.

“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.”

Viola’s work has brought him to California, where he has lived for the past 25 years, and sent him around the world. He met his wife Kira Perov, now the executive director of his studio, in 1977 when he was invited to exhibit his work at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.

The couple were productive, if not profitable, through the ’80s, until Viola hit a dry patch, literally and figuratively – his project was about the desert. “I was stuck for two years,” he says. “I really was lost and I just went off the rails and I felt I didn’t have any creative spirit, any creative juice in my body.” In the midst of it, their first child, Blake, was born, in 1988.

Two unrelated events occurred that had a transformative effect on Viola’s life and career.

The first was that his mother fell ill and died three months later. Viola revisited his past, looking through the family’s collection of home movies, which included his mother. “I realised she was part of this empty desert landscape. After her death, everything seemed like a desert – the city seemed like a desert.”

From that sense of loss came what Viola calls “one of the best pieces I’ve ever done”, The Passing.

The second was an act of philanthropy that was particularly and peculiarly American: the bestowal, in 1989, of the so-called “genius grant”, by the MacArthur Foundation, an American benevolent organisation. The bequest is worth $US500,000, spread over five years and dispersed among 20 to 30 nominees each year. Its purpose, according to the foundation’s website, “is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations”.

“We were living in a little rented bungalow with second-hand furniture,” Viola says. “We had no idea where the money would be coming from three months out, just had a new baby, no health insurance. Our existence was that fragile.”

It’s as though Viola, even with international exposure and vast experience, could trace the change in his fortunes to a single moment, the phone call informing him of the grant.

“Since that grant and the five-year salary, I’ve never looked back because we never ran out of money. By the end of that fellowship people were starting to buy the art in a big way, we were starting to go out into museums, we were getting some income from selling works which I never ever dreamed was possible when I started.

“So it just kept going from there. It was kind of a big turning point.”

Viola walks to work. His studio is a rented house, across the street from his home in the southern LA suburb of Long Beach.

The workspace in the living room is crammed but tidy, the walls a neutral shade of beige. The table in the small adjoining dining room where we speak is grey, with a rare burst of colour from a vase of flowers. Next to it, tall modular bookshelves are crowded with titles: art, history, philosophy, religion and Charles Bukowski.

It speaks of eclectic tastes and detailed knowledge. For the Tristan works to be shown in Sydney, Viola drew not just on the essence of Wagner’s Tristan And Isolde but also the time-honoured theatrical theme of the doomed love story.

“It’s a very old story of two lovers that have to leave this world in order to realise their love,” Viola says. “As staged by Wagner it’s not a tragedy. People are crying, not out of tragedy, but out of a profound feeling of awe and transcendence, at what has become more than themselves. Operas can be quite frivolous but this is quite a profound story.”

Viola’s works are designed to spark and hold attention, not just because of their subject matter but also the means of their projection, which can be several times larger than life.

Despite that, he can see a place for his works, some of which have already appeared on YouTube, on the smallest of screens as well. In this case it’s less a matter of bowing to the future than adapting it to his own history and tastes.

“Something I used to do when I was younger especially; the first thing I do when I’m done with the museum is go to the bookshop and buy postcards,” Viola says. “They have very good quality reproductions of some of the great works. They actually float off that medium and float out into the world.”

His first venture into that realm will be less artistic than altruistic. In 2005, Viola and Kira were given an audience with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. They recorded his recitation of a Buddhist prayer, with the intention of connecting the most ancient with the most modern, from the old world to the new.

“I haven’t had the time to do it yet,” he says. “But I hope to get it out on iTunes, so people can sit in the subway on their way to work in Manhattan and have the Dalai Lama appear on their cell phone and give them a little blessing.”

Exhibition notes from 2005

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