Born in New York (United States), 1951
Lives & works in (United States)
Very active in: 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, Current decade

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Bill Viola is, without any doubt, one of the most prestigious contemporary artists, characterized by a tendency towards lyricism and a use of the video graphic devices to serve profound spiritual concerns.

Interested, since the early 60s in music, and sound in general, he collaborated with the Composer David Tudor, and made long recordings such as the one inside the Duomo and others in many different religious places of Florence. He was convinced that sound has a key role in the feeling of the indescribable.

In a certain way, he used the camera as a visual microphone recording fields instead of capturing points of view. The works made in between 1973 and 1979 are meditations about the possibilities of the medium itself, structural researches where he manifested his interest in establishing a communication with himself, going through narcissism to reach a dimension of enormous tension. This happens in The Space Between the Teeth (1976) where we can witness the artist's scream.

"My work? - says Bill Viola - is focused on a process of self-discovery and self-realization. Video is part of my body. It is intuitive and subconscious." In order to make Mythic origins of mankind Viola travelled to places like the Salomon Islands, where he captured dances and rituals; to Java, where he made a documentary about traditional music; to the Himalayan city of Ladakh where he gathered sounds of religious practices from diverse Buddhist Tibetans' monasteries; and to the Fiji Islands, where he recorded the walking on fire ceremony of the Hindu community. Bill Viola, this reader of the Koran, Buddhist and Sufi mystical texts, considers the spread of ancient oriental wisdom to the West as one of the greatest events of the 20th Century, especially the teachings of the Zen Master Suzuki and the essays of Coomaraswamy.

Bill Viola turns repeatedly towards the internal, which, according to him, is everything. He wants to open up the emotional side of our nature, which is forgotten in occidental cultures, losing himself in compassion, the most human quality. His absolute interest in meditation brought him closer to the works of mystics like Djalal al-Din al Rumi, Chuang Tzu, San Juan de la Cruz and the Master Eckhart who all brilliantly embody the nature of the work of art. Viola rescues that negative path that, from oriental religions to the Gnosticism or the Pseudo-Dionysius Aeropagita, advises the impossibility of knowing God who is totally the other; independent and complete. In front of the Deity the human mind is emptied and enters into a cloud of ignorance; however that is precisely the best way to access the highest level from within, through love, and what we know as enlightenment.

"After devoting such a long time to the study of Oriental religion and Islamic Mysticism - mentions Viola in an interview with Jörg Zutter - and after having rejected my Christian roots, I was delighted to discover that the same thread travels through my cultural history, something that I had never imagined. I considered it as a basic tendency of mankind more than a specific movement, and this made things much clearer for me: Issues such as the universal nature of the mystic experience, the essence of creativity and inspiration, the feeling of loneliness inside the community, or the individual view of society. This has also been a great support to my own artistic practice. I take the role of the mystic in the sense of following a negative path, in which I feel that the root of my work is in the unknown, in the doubt, lost among questions and not in answers."

Video is a powerful tool to make visible what is not, even if, in order to do so, like Viola did himself in Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait of Light and Heat) (1979), one needs to face the desert's mirages.

A sentence by Cezanne that Bill Viola subscribes to completely says: "At this instant there is a moment that is always happening. We must become that moment". His will to represent time as a complex reality to which we return inevitably, because of the concentric view of the happening. We can see in Ancient of Days (1979-1981) how destruction rewound becomes creation, the cyclic way of time drives us to the melancholic vision of a natural death.

For Viola the real raw material of his art is not the camera or the screen, but rather time and experience, being the site of the Work not a room, but rather the mind and the heart of those who are ready to see. The Works of Jung helped him understand archetype images as a kind of visual archaeology of the mind, and become aware that they have a power of transformation in the inside of a person; "that Art articulates processes of healing, development or self realization, summarizing is a kind of knowledge, an epistemology in its deeper sense, and not just an aesthetic practice" . In the video installation Threshold (1992) , the spectator enters a room through a door framed with an electronic panel showing violent and frivolous world news. Inside we are mesmerized by three projections of people sleeping: their breathing removed from reality's catastrophes drives us into the dimension of the unconscious. Meanwhile in The Sleepers (1992), we can see inside metallic barrels the faces of people sleeping and, once in a while, changing positions.

One of the most impressive works of Bill Viola is Nantes Triptych (1992) in which an under water figure, goes from calmness to the largest of turbulences, floating in a vacuum between death and the filming of a birth. In 1991 the artist's mother had just passed away and nine months later his second child was born, significant events for triptych and for Heaven and Earth (1992). Viola, worrying about the relation between micro and macrocosms, crosses a mirror or, better yet, turns it around in space showing the multiplicity of the World and approaches the essential symbolism of water; that mixture between dissolution and rebirth discussed previously by Bachelard.

I am thinking of Works such us The Reflecting Pool (1977-1979) where he allegorizes baptism, or Angel's Gate (1989) with images that fade out to black in clear allusion to death, extinguishing candles, fruits falling from trees or a family posing for a picture, things that we still remember or are about to fade away, decisive gestures and visions that never leave us, such as a baby being born in front of our eyes, but also events that bring us the deepest sorrow. Bill Viola has realized that the recording of events of our daily context reveals experiences that are universal, deep and mysterious, leaving a metaphor similar to abandoned mathematical equations without solutions. "... just those mysteries - points out the genius video artist - in the most authentic sense of the term, exist with no need to be resolved, but rather to be experienced and accustomed" . It's as if the images were calls to awaken us; visions that bring us to the symbolic fountains of life; something we can find in The Passing (1991) that this artist considers as a personal response to the spiritual extremes of birth and death in the family. Using nocturnal black and white images and under water scenes, he represents a crepuscular world on the edge of perception and human consciousness where multiple lives of the mind such as memory, reality and fantasy melt. The breathing of the artist is a persistent voyage to darkness that brings him again to the deserts in this case those of Nevada, Utah or surrounding Los Angeles.

Viola knows how to place himself in the paradoxical; to accompany the subject of The Messenger (1996) in his effort to come to the surface of the water, take a breath and lower again; to contemplate, without falling into an apocalyptic mentality, a McDonald's beside a Buddhist pagoda in Japan, or juxtapose Rumi's sentence "every image is a lie" with another one of William Blake's that declares "everything that you can believe in is an image of truth" . Death and birth, dreams and recollections, are intertwined with these visions in tension between mysticism and romanticism. As Michael Rush exposes: "For mystics in the olden times, whom Viola venerates, flames and water were symbols for a love that consumes everything, and annihilates the old "I" into a new contemplative state of union".


The prayers of To Pray Without Ceasing (1992) combined with fragments of Song to myself of Whitman have been heard. The cycle of light and fire, earth and disintegration, water and darkness, do not bring despair, nevertheless for Viola they seem to suggest redemption. The spectacular installation Going Forth By Day (2002), commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim of Berlin, begins with the Egyptian Book of Dead and Giotto's frescos from the Scrovegni Chapel of Padua, to continue composing a cycle of projections that occupy an enormous room. There we witness from birth, to the pass of people in a forest, to a shocking allegory for the Great Flood, to the last final trip; that agony in a house by a lake where a ship is being filled with all kind of goods, and to an exhausted rescue team after a catastrophe. The extraordinary beauty of this work is difficult to describe, neither can you synthesize the subtle symbols of dreams, daily life, memory and hope.

In 1998 Viola was invited to the research institute of the Getty Museum, as an artist in residence developing the question of the representation of passion, meaning those extreme expressions that because of their nature are so overwhelming and irrational that cannot be analyzed or debated in the way other things can. Bill Viola investigates pain, crying, fury, doubt or laughter taking devoting images from the medieval and renaissance painting tradition. The fascinating cycle of The Passions, presented earlier in the J. Paul Getty Museum of Los Angeles and in the London National Gallery, includes works like Observance (2002) based on The Four Holy Men by Durer or Emergence (2002) that makes reference to the Pietà of Masolino.

This artist faces the question of how to paint the supernatural vision, the deepest feeling that torments mystics. "Viola's method -writes Rolf Lauter - is comparable to the one of an ancient wise man that reviews the countless events of his life to replay the spectrum of existence; the subjective cosmos of his experience in the tangible world. In this process, he destroys the limits of aesthetic perception and experience, integrates the spectator and himself in his Works, trying to make palpable his concept of the eternal presence of time". If in a work such as Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House (1982) he subjected himself to a proof almost shamanic of staying three days awake in a house where he as "the other" was continuously calling without answer, in his video graphic mediation about passions, resorts to silent actors that have to embody waves of feelings that, literately, go through them.

This lucid artist does not release his effort to show the limits of existence, revealing a world of intense emotions, bringing us closer to the sublime: "Every apparatus - Bill Viola notices- of production, the high technology necessary, must converge in that kind of sensitive instant, silent and spiritual. I am interested in those delicate moments in which the mind suddenly understands something, the revelation, the epiphany. Those intimate moments described by poets and illustrated by painters in all cultures. It is something that enlightens from the inner and not from the outer".

The emblematic exploration of the personal world, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, made through the camera that is like a interior eye, brings up extraordinary mysteries, a conception of existence as an organic unity where memories and oblivion, mystic stillness and the tremor of nature, desserts and primordial waters, leave a deep trace in the eye of the other.

Bill Viola records that water drop in which the spectator reflects himself, metaphor of the passing of life as well as the imperious need of seeing what cannot be seen or achieving what once William Blake proposed: "To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour".

Copies of the works of Bill Viola can be purchased and rented for exhibition in EAI, Video Data Bank.
Fernando Castro