Bill Viola - Biography and Legacy
American Video Artist
Biography of 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.
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 Düsseldorf, 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.
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.
The Legacy of Bill Viola
Bill Viola was instrumental in establishing video art as a viable medium in contemporary art. Overall, the works are powerful - for example art theorist Cynthia Freeland describes Viola's work as "'excessive': not only does its scale of presentation increasingly tend towards the grandiose, but the effects of encountering it may exceed our capacity to contain our responses".
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.