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Bill Viola

American Video Artist

Bill Viola Photo
Born: January 25, 1951
Queens, NY
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Birth is not a beginning, death is not an end.
Bill Viola Signature

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

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

Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) (1981)

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.

Room for St. John of the Cross (1983)

Room for St. John of the Cross (1983)

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.

Heaven and Earth (1992)

Heaven and Earth (1992)

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.

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

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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