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Bill Viola

American Video Artist

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Born: January 25, 1951 - Queens, NY

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

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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.

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.
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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.

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