Bill Viola was born in 1951, in New York. He studied at the Experimental Studios of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, where he graduated in 1973. In the early 1970s, Viola had already started to engage in video as an artistic medium, in its technological foundations and theoretical aspects of perception. During various stays abroad that also led him to the video art studio Art/Tapes/22 in Florence (1972/73), Viola focused his interests on the technical possibilities and on questions of content of the filmic-acoustic medium. Travels to the Solomon Islands, to Java, Bali, and a one-year stay in Japan (1980/81) followed. In Japan, Viola became intensely involved with Zen Buddhism while also working for the Sony Corporation’s Atsugi research lab. Being confronted with unfamiliar cultural traditions as well as a specific regional landscape were aspects that informed his future video work. From 1976 to 1983, Viola worked as artist-in-residence for the television network WNET Thirteen Television Laboratory, New York. In 1983, he taught Advanced Video at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. In 1984, he worked at the San Diego Zoo as part of a project on animal consciousness. In the following years, Viola was involved in many further projects at various institutions, among them the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and Humanities, Los Angeles.
Viola is by now considered one of the most internationally renowned video artists. With about 150 artist videos, he significantly contributed to establishing the video as a technology and a medium of contemporary art. Early on, Viola developed his own formal vocabulary. The play with progressing speed, with slow motion, fast motion, and a shifting of proportions, with coarse-grained, defamiliarized images and with reversing, is among the many approaches the artist has employed since the early 1970s. His videotapes, video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, and TV productions are usually done in closed-circuit-mode, with utmost precision. Viola’s artistic method is based on the exploration of a medium that promises basic insights into processes of perception through its mediation of moving pictures and time structures. He extensively investigates aspects of sense perception and self-perception. Existential experiences of human life, such as birth and death, and their relevance for consciousness and corporeality have emerged as central themes of his videos. They are equally inspired by Western and Eastern culture, by Zen Buddhism, by Islamic Sufism, and by Christian Mysticism. In the video works his wife Kira Perov has produced since 1978, the artist quite often appears as a character or also as protagonist of the narrative.
In Science of the Heart (1983), for example, or in Stations (1994), Viola focuses on the state of sleep and the suspension of space and time. In five underwater sequences, Stations shows weightlessly drifting human bodies in a thing-like passivity. In his »winged altar« Nantes Triptych (1992), he then turns towards the simultaneity of birth and death, concentrating on human existence (also on his own existence) in time: »(…) The relation between both [existence and time] is so complex that I need to elaborate on this. In architecture, the human body is the absolute measure. If we speak of the size of something, it is always in relation to our body. It is our basic dimension – albeit a relative one – within which we move. Our existence is also a measure, that is, a measure of time. If something appears too long or too short, it is always in relation to our body. Our heartbeat as well as our lives extending from birth to death are measurements of time. The heartbeat that gives us a feeling for time as a rhythmical or cyclical process is not only the musical life rhythm. It is also a kind of regular increase in life. This is all undoubtedly connected to the body and to our perception. We also realize whether something is a bit faster or slower. Yet sometimes things are too fast or too slow to be perceived. That means we only have a limited perceptional framework to assess the speed of time. Only on the basis of this knowledge, that human life is defined through birth and death, are we aware that there is a more comprehensive time, one that transcends our life, an eternal time. (…)« (Viola, in: Kunstforum, 150/2000).
Viola’s video works are also carried by accompanying acoustic qualities. Here, Viola, relies on the collaboration with experimental composer David Tudor and on his knowledge about technical aspects of video production, a knowledge also based on his time as assistant of Nam June Paik. As »sculptural material,« sound acquires a special role: »(…) Basically, I intend to retain the existential moment as a background, and then there are those culminating points that happen and stand out from the continuum. (…) John Cage already pointed out that something like silence doesn’t exist at all. Somebody who sits in an empty room and is very quiet hears so many sounds, for example, the air conditioner inside, or the noise of the traffic outside. In any case, with my microphones positioned in rooms I recorded nothing, if you want. There were only minor noises, including those of the equipment I had which was not high quality, so that it was technically difficult to manage the recordings. I definitely wanted to record the ambience, the feeling for space. (…)« (Viola ibid.).
With historical or art historical references in his works, Viola extended the spectrum of video art towards almost feature-film-like image sequences. Yet they do deviate from film through speed, detail, quality of images, or sound. For example, The Greeting, staged at the Venice Biennale in 1995, shows – as an apparent ritual – the meeting of the biblical figures Mary and Elizabeth as videoloop. It is also presented as a reinterpretation of Jacopo Pontormo’s 16th century depiction of the Visitation. Also, the videoloop The Quintet of the Astonished, done in 2000, establishes references to art historical precedents, in this case to the Dornenkrönung (Christ Crowned with Thorns) by Hieronymus Bosch. Aside from painting, points of reference in Viola’s video works are also taken from other fields, other artistic genres, and other iconographic traditions. His Six Heads (2000), for example, concentrates on a head marked by different emotional states. It draws on the tradition of anatomical artist drawings as well as on the character studies of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. The videos were sometimes done in private living spaces, in total darkness, and they aimed for a concentrated viewer’s perspective. This spatial staging reveals an adaptation of museal contexts of presentation as well as historically defined instructions on viewing.
In more recent video installations, Viola again takes up his central thematic fields. He engages the foundations of human existence, the links between thinking and acting, between inner and outer reality, for example in hist video/audio installation Threshold (1992).
Aside from pursuing these themes in the project Going Forth By Day (2001/2002), Viola created a five-part digital composition that refers back to an Egyptian book of the dead describing the freeing of the soul from the darkness of the body. There is also the design for Peter Sellar’s staging of Tristan and Isolde (2005) at the Paris Opera. Viola created a world of images »that exists parallel to the action on stage – like a poetical, subtle narrative that mediates hidden dimensions of our interior life« (Viola, ibid., 176/2005).
Since the early 1970s, Viola’s work has been shown at international exhibitions, starting with an exhibition at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, in 1973. In 1977, 1982, and 1992, he participated in the Documenta and, in 1984, in the Venice Biennale. He also represented the United States at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995, with Buried Secrets. A comprehensive show of his works took place in 1997, at the Whitney Museum of American Art. From there, the exhibition traveled to various locations in the U.S. and Europe. In 2003, Viola’s works were shown at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Bill Viola lives and works in Long Beach, California.
Janhsen, Angeli: Kunst sehen ist sich selbst sehen, Christian Boltanski, Bill Viola, Berlin 2005
Stations – Bill Viola: Ausst.-Kat. Museum für Neue Kunst, Karlsruhe, hg. v. G. Adriani, Ostfildern 2000
Lauter, Rolf (Hg.): Bill Viola, europäische Einsichten, Werkbetrachtungen, München / London u.a. 1999
Bill Viola: Ausst.-Kat. Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art u.a., Ostfildern 1999
Bill Viola, Unseen images / Nie gesehene Bilder / Images jamais vues: Ausst.-Kat. Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Whitechapel Art Gallery London, hg. v. M.L. Syring, Düsseldorf 1992