Bill Viola was born 1951 in Queens, New York, where he was raised by Christian parents. In 1973 he earned his BFA in Experimental Studios at Syracuse University. Viola is an internationally recognized artist, and one of the founders of video art - helping to legitamize the medium in the contemporary artworld.
Bill Viola uses video as a tool of perception to explore universal themes such as birth, death and consciousness. When exhibiting his video work, he considers the entire space; creating installations with architectural, sculptural and sound elements. A reoccuring motif in Viola's work is the element of water. While vacationing with his family as a child, he nearly drowned in a lake which he considers a crucial moment of artistic inspiration. He describes being underwater as the a beautiful, peaceful world of blues and greens. Through Viola's video, he seems to take the viewer to that place in his memory.
Viola also considers spirituality to be a driving force of his work. He has spent much time studying Eastern and Western philosophies and mystic traditions, such as Zen Buddhism, Gnostic Christianity, Sufism, Taoism and Indigenous Shamanism. In his collection of essays, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, Viola gives us a look into his readings, notes, ideas and sketches for future pieces, and selected interviews where he discusses his research in philosophy.
Bill Viola has traveled to nearly every continent filming his work, from the Himalayan mountains in Tibet to the Saharan desert in Africa. His work has been exhibited in the Venice Biennale, MoMA in New York, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim in New York and countless art institutions across the world. Viola is my personal favorite out of all the artists I've chosen to study this summer. Enjoy!
Views on Eastern Philosophy
Bill Viola is interested in finding the connections that all people share and that all religions share. In Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, he is passionate about looking into the similarities between Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. As Viola was growing up, he rejected his Christian heritage but embraced it again once he discovered more of its mystical roots in the teachings of Meister Eckhart and Saint John of the Cross. Viola's major spiritual concerns are the fast pace of modern life, the rational Western mind neglecting the intuitive knowledge of the body, and scientific inquiry only asking questions of "how" but never "why". In an interview with Otto Neumaier and Alexander Puhringer, he states:
"Human beings tend so much to think in extremes - good or bad, right or wrong. Our whole culture is based on a dualistic, exclusive, adversarial approach. Some say the intellect is the superior human function, others say we are emotional beings. For me, however, the point is to try to connect these two essential elements so that they are put in balance, so that one doesn't dominate the other...
Today I think there is a requirement, a need for reintegration [of art and science], for connecting us to the fundamental questions and issues which have been passed by as an active, imperative issues because of the "progress" of ideas. In our... society, we have come so far from these... big questions, from the origin of religion and philosophy: birth, death, existence, and so on. The intellect can give you the misconception that you understand something by simply thinking about it analytically, so that we forget... these are arenas to be encountered through Being... Up until Newton's breakthrough work on gravitation, the main question was not how the apple falls from the tree but why the apple falls... So here we have the basis of the illusion that we have understood something simply by rationally describing and analyzing its operation."
Barbara London of NYC MoMA explains Viola's connection to Eastern philosophy in her curatorial catalogue "BILL VIOLA: INSTALLATIONS AND VIDEOTAPES THE POETICS OF LIGHT AND TIME":
"Viola's approach to his life and work has been greatly influenced by the East, which is key to understanding his art. Having as much esteem for the circulatory system as the circuit board, he is constantly exploring the larger system as it is expressed by the smallest part. Respecting nature's power, he sees the world as composed of interacting opposites-light and dark, spiritual and physical, life and death - as reflected in the Chinese concept of yin and yang. Although he does not adhere to any formal religion, he respects the significance of tradition and ritual in all systems of belief."
Works of Interest
The Sleep of Reason (skip to 3:15)
I connect with Bill Viola's artwork because it has a soul; raw energy. Viola video is a "sculpture of time" and he does just that. He doesn't want his artwork to be owned, but to live in the hearts of those who see it. Viola is able to reach a wide audience because he works with such universal questions such as, "Why was I born? How did I get here? Where am I going? What connects us? What is death like?"
Obviously, Bill Viola does not know these answers, but his artwork is a means to help us understand more or touch the essence of life. Along with universal themes, he also uses motifs everyone can understand such as the five elements of fire, water, earth and air. His use of slow motion takes us out of everyday time and allows us to experience another mode of perception. To me, the slow motion of the elements in relationship to the body say something more about transformation than the time we would normally experience with our eyes, because it shifts our focus to minute changes.
The "Sleep of Reason" is currently my favorite piece. I also am fascinated by sleep and make work about this other mode of consciousness that we experience for half the time we're alive. The way Viola uses projection to coordinate with the video on the television is brilliant! They are flashes of dreams and nightmares. There are so many symbols and interpretations to pick apart. The fact that the video of the sleeping man is on a television makes me think perhaps it says something about how mass media influences our unconscious mind, which is the mind also experienced in dreams. The images of the owl, dog, a person walking - these are archetypal images that could pertain to anyone. I can't help but be inspired and influenced by the work of Bill Viola, and admire the unique ways he chooses to display video in an installation, giving his viewers a full haptic experience.
Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, Bill Viola
"Biography", Bill Viola <http://www.billviola.com/biograph.htm>
"Bill Viola", Wikipedia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Viola>
"BILL VIOLA: INSTALLATIONS AND VIDEOTAPES THE POETICS OF LIGHT AND TIME", Barbara London, NY MoMA <http://www.experimentaltvcenter.org/bill-viola-installations-and-videotapes-poetics-light-and-time>