Whitehot Magazine

December 2009, In Conversation with Bill Viola

Bill Viola, Ancient of Days Bill Viola, Ancient of Days, 1979-81 Videotape, color, stereo sound; 12:21 minutes Photo: Kira Perov


Alissa Guzman in Conversation with Bill Viola

Bill Viola: Bodies of Light
James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th St.
New York, NY 10001
23 October through 19 December, 2009

Bodies of Light, currently showing through the 19th of December 2009 at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea, is the gallery’s fifth exhibition from the American video artist Bill Viola. Spanning two decades of Viola’s work, this exhibition shows both his recent high definition, plasma screen videos, as well a new installation of an older black and white video. The gallery’s ambiance, dimly lit, hushed, and divided into individual rooms, reverently offers Viola’s videos projecting luminously outward.  

Meeting with Bill the afternoon before the opening of Bodies of Light, we discussed the larger concepts and interests behind his long career.

Alissa Guzman: I have spent the past two weeks researching your career, and as I did so I became very aware of the fact that your body of work exceeds my own life-span.  

Bill Viola: Oh, that’s an interesting thought!  

AG: Not in any negative sense, but I was looking for connections, interests you had or concerns, especially in your early writings that were from a time I don’t remember. One of the things that initially interested me was that your media, video, seems so time specific. I feel like each video you make is based in the time that it was made technically, and yet your themes I find incredibly timeless—life, death, consciousness, memory. Could you address the dichotomy between your materiality and your themes?  

BV: We are literally prisoners, or guests, in the stream of time. Ancient cultures described three great reservoirs of humanity – the Unborn, the Living, and the Dead, but only one of these domains is finite–our world of the living. This makes our life here on earth so precious. ¨These are the “timeless themes” in my work that you mentioned. However, as Buddha said, “All life is change,” so you can only be of your time. I just happened to have been born in 1951, and I was fortunate that, in the timeline of history, I came of age when television was just beginning – a barely functioning, black and white, low-resolution medium.

As a young boy I watched the first live television broadcast between Paris and New York, which had never been done before. Soon after, the 1964-65 World’s Fair opened and it was all about technology. I was 13-years-old, living in Queens, and I could walk down to the World’s Fair Expo from my house after school. I saw all these pavilions with exhibits of science and technology. It was all about moving forward into a new future. It gave my generation optimism. We felt like we could do anything. The world was changing, and we were riding the new wave. At the time, technology for me was a positive force – the dark side was to appear later….

I first saw a video camera in high school, and I never forgot it. The next year when I arrived at university I immediately started looking for a video class. On the very first day of the workshop I held the camera in my hands and turned it on. I saw an image of the room, and the people in it, live. Instinctively I knew that this was the future, my future, and that I would be doing it for the rest of my life.  

AG: Did you feel when you were in art school that there was a material hierarchy, like using video was considered not a real way to make art?

BV: Completely. When I had my first show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the space they gave me was the gallery next to the toilets in the basement… the least desirable place. The senior curators had the painting and sculpture galleries upstairs – that was where the “real” art was. So video art was discriminated against from the very beginning. 

AG: …like photography? 

BV: Yes, photography is a perfect example. It was already “sanctified” by the establishment when video appeared. These struggles gave us incredible strength and defiance. When someone is telling you they’re going to put you next to the toilets, it is empowering because that is where they first put Monet in the 19th century, in the Salon de Refusé. When you’re the refused ones it makes you more focused, more tenacious, and it makes you believe even more strongly in what you’re doing.

Also, there was no market for video art in the beginning, and this gave us a platform and the time to develop our craft for ourselves, outside of the commercial art market. I had my first commercial gallery show when I was 41-years-old, so I worked for almost seventeen years without gallery representation.

AG: I am curious about your video The Passing (1991). You talk about the inspirations for this video being the loss of your mother and the birth of your son. You state, “for the first time my private life was in my studio,” and you talk about this work as being a transition into dealing with more personal topics. Can you talk about this transition, or if you see it that way? 

BV: Well, I do and I don’t. First of all, my work has always been personal. When I was younger I was working differently than I do now because I was engaged with intellectual ideas from the current art practice and theory. But when I look back on those years, the real agenda was held very deeply within myself. Yes I was an artist, yes I was operating within the art world, and I was familiar with all the big names one is supposed to be familiar with, but ultimately those were just the means towards an end.

I started reading spiritual texts as a student, and one of the first ones that caught my eye was Rumi’s Mathnawi, an amazing five-volume discourse on human existence and the divine written in the 13th century. When I started to read that material and apply it to what I knew about art and art making, and what I knew about contemporary existence, I began to see things in a much more connected way. The death of my mother in 1991 was the moment when the barrier between life and art disappeared. In a way it wasn’t even a barrier because I didn’t even know it existed. The borderline between life and death is not a brick wall that you battle your way through, it is fragile and porous, like a soap bubble. This is a profound thing, and it gives us this urgent need in life to touch the infinite.  

Bill Viola, The Passing
Bill Viola, The Passing, 1991
In memory of Wynne Lee Viola, Videotape, Black-and-white, mono sound; 54 minutes
Photo: Kira Perov

AG: The first time I saw your work was for the Venice Biennale. My mom showed me your work because my best friend had just died at 27. I had grown up with him ever since I was a child, and he died of a brain tumor.  

BV: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, that’s so sad.  

AG: It was definitely a moment of discovery for me. In your book, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House (1995), you talk about discovery as being not something new but something that has always been there, and I felt like that about death. Obviously it’s not something new, but it’s something new to you when you personally have to come to terms with, say, the fact that young people die…  

BV: We usually think that it’s only old people who die, don’t we?

AG: …yes, like death is assigned to old people. That work for me had a lot of meaning. Can you talk about how death relates to Ocean Without a Shore

BV:  Death is the root system that holds the unconscious psyche together and illuminates this island that is life. All of the work I do originates from the unconscious self. After I completed my art school training, it took me a while to break away from the way of thinking and working that my art professors had taught me. When I finally broke free from that, that’s when I really started to make progress.  

AG: [laughing] Now how long did that take?  

BV: About eight years. Of course, to this day several of the really good teachers and mentors I’ve had are still within me, and when I work I do think about them and visualize their presence. However, it was the whole system that seemed problematic to me, with its overemphasis on external benchmarks like grades, technical proficiency, and public presentation, and an under-emphasis on the subjective disciplines of mind training – cultivation of self-knowledge, maintaining awareness and balance of body and mind in the creative act, and the honing and purification of the inner intention behind the work.

AG: Actually I wanted to ask you something about art school. Going back to the idea of “the personal,” you have talked before about how the personal wasn’t accepted as a way to work, and you refer to dealing with emotions as “the forbidden zone.” 

BV: An important breakthrough occurred at the end of the 1990s. The year previous to that I had been a Scholar in Residence at the Getty Research Institute. We went through the history of emotion in art, tears and crying Madonnas, and at the same time my father was dying. I would literally drive to the Getty, be in these seminars, and then I would drive home and stop off at the hospital to see him. For most of my adult life I’d always thought that crying and emotion had no place in my art. You put your art practice over here, and your personal life over there. Since the Enlightenment, we in Western culture have been taught to put knowledge in boxes. Think of the “Wunderkammer,” the “Cabinet of Curiosities” with the rows of small boxes for specimens.

All those boxes finally dissolved for me at that time, a wall just melted away. Human beings are transformers. We devour something, it is somehow transmuted into a vision or knowledge. What comes out from the process is a completely raw, open, unguarded you. The best artists excavate their souls. The ones who are more intellectual or more formalistic in their work might hear me say that and disagree, but I would still argue they are doing this without knowing it. You have to get the conscious mind out of the way, because he or she is the clever trickster always waiting there to trip you up with ego. 

AG: That reminds me of something you said, “artists shouldn’t make the images they want, they should make the images they need.”  

BV: I think postmodernism has amplified the scientific/intellectual habit of starting an investigation at the end, like a crime scene and gradually working your way toward the beginning. This is called “deconstruction.” If you invert it around and make it construction, you start from an incomplete state without a precise idea of where you’re going to end. This requires creativity, risk and faith. Not knowing where you’re going to end and not knowing the answer is life giving… We live in an age of information pollution. Information is drowning out the places where we don’t know what we’re doing, the ones you can’t describe before you experience them.  

AG: You have talked about landscape, [for example] your experience with going to Death Valley, and how landscape can be very overwhelming. Growing up in California where there are so many vast spaces I felt like every family vacation was to somewhere completely dwarfing. I grew up with this complete love of going to these places that made me feel so insignificant…. 

BV: You feel like a little tiny flea. 

AG: …and so vulnerable. I would go to these places and I felt like I belonged to this very large system of things, and that was really very comforting. 

BV: That’s a very nice thought.  

AG: When you talk about the “barriers” in your work, when I am in that sort of place is the only time I feel like the barriers get thinner for me.  

BV: That’s why from antiquity onward people always left civilization and went out into the untamed wild lands… Those were not the picturesque places we know now, National Parks like Death Valley, which you loved the first time you went, and I absolutely fell in love with, too, in 1974. I will never forget sitting at Zabriskie Point for a whole afternoon watching the sun and light shift and change. Pure beauty… However, in Saint Anthony’s time it was extremely dangerous to go out “there”, out into the “great loneliness,” hostile territory where the hermits and mystics went to push life to the edge. This was serious business. Many never came back.  

Bill Viola, Ocean Without a Shore
Bill Viola, Ocean Without a Shore, 2007
High Definition color video triptych, two plasma screens, one screen mounted vertically, six loudspeakers (three pairs stereo sound)
Room dimensions variable; Performers: Lisa Cohen, Blake Viola, and Eugenia Care
Installation view: Church of San Gallo, Venice; Photo: Thierry Bal

AG: Do you feel like these ideas relate to Ocean Without a Shore?  

BV: Yes. They all deal with the idea of a “threshold.” Fundamentally, Ocean Without a Shore is about a threshold, a threshold that is porous, transparent, wispy and inconsequential… The belief of some kind of power, energy, danger or mystery at the crossroads is very ancient. The old black blues singers in the U.S. used to sing about the crossroads. Back in the Middle Ages, and even in the ancient world of Greece and Rome, the idea of the crossover point was always some kind of threshold… Human beings need barriers and resistance… Limits create friction and energy. Artists need that. We love it when someone tells us “it’s not possible.”

AG: I think it just makes us push harder.  

BV: Yes. That’s why we’re in a danger zone right now. In our comfortable modern world we are in a constant state of not being challenged. I just received a commission to do two permanent, plasma screen video altarpieces for one of the biggest cathedrals in England, St. Paul’s in London. One is on the theme of Mary, and the other is on Martyrs. They will be permanently installed in two chapels in the north and south quire aisles respectively. Now that’s a challenge! Artists will always rise to the occasion. We love it. Even if no one gives it to you, you still have to figure out a way to challenge yourself, to raise the bar, to put a threshold there, whether it’s a brick wall or water. You just put your head down and go right through it. That’s where the great artworks come from throughout history – they always arise from some kind of obstacle. Get yourself to the edge, and then…. Jump!

AG: You have talked a lot about empathy, mostly in the context of your work The Passions. I am curious about the limits of people to empathize with emotions that are outside their realm of experience. I find people’s reactions to death interesting because I feel like people are quick to empathize, which makes sense because everyone knows loss, but I also felt like it is a way to dismiss actually feeling or dealing with the real emotion.  â€¨â€¨

BV: Do you think people pretend?  

AG: I feel like it’s a quick way to compartmentalize. I’m curious if you found any of these issues with work like The Passions

BV: Well, I think you’ve put your finger on something really important and interesting about America. America is one of the most diverse countries on the planet. It has immigrants from literally all over the world. With all the traveling I’ve done I realized what is unique about America. It’s a simultaneous combination of all these various cultures, so you can’t unify it the way you can unify the Germans, Italians, Japanese, or French. We are a society of individuals. This is why individuality and identity are so important, as are issues of race, uniqueness and personality, and why the internet, social networking and role-playing sites are so popular. 

We recently observed the holiday of Halloween, known as “The Day of the Dead” in most countries. It’s only in America where Halloween is not about honoring the dead, but disguising your own identity. In places like Mexico or Brazil, the dead literally come into your home and the grandmother who died ten years ago has a place setting at the table for the holiday meal. 

AG: I feel like that would be much scarier to us. 

BV: That is just one example of how, in a society that has no common cultural roots, we are constantly asked to be an individual, to be unique. In a way this gave American culture vitality and energy, but I think it also creates the need to be different from everybody else, which socially can cause problems. 

AG: I lived in France for a year, and I feel like the great thing about French culture is their tradition. There is such a specific way to do everything, and it’s even very regional. I was envious but at the same time I felt like it was sometimes oppressing. You might want to be able try something new and have it fail. 

BV: I think the middle ground is potentially very interesting… I think we spend far too little time here honoring those who came before us.  

Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished
Bill Viola, The Quintet of the Astonished, 2000
Color video rear projection on screen mounted on wall in dark room, 
Projected image size: 1.4 x 2.4 m;
Room dimensions variable; Performers: John Malpede, Weba Garretson, Tom Fitzpatrick, John Fleck, Dan Gerrity
Photo: Kira Perov

AG: One last thing I want to ask you. In the introduction of your book you mention what a rare opportunity it is for an artist to be able to communicate unmediated with the public. I am very inspired by artists like Robert Smithson who redefined how art was talked about, by who, and what got discussed.  

BV: Exactly. No one had to “approve” it.  

AG: Right. As an artist and someone who is also writing I wonder if you think this has changed any since you wrote that. Is it easier for artists now or do you think it’s just as meditated only in a different way? 

BV: It depends on the artist. There are artists who have a voice outside their art making practice, and there are other artists, who I greatly respect, who have internalized their practice to the point where they cannot stand before a group and explain their work. I have no problem with an artist saying, “It’s all in the work, just look at my work.”

At University, I was one of the shyest kids in my class until one day a professor asked me to talk about video to the class. I’ve found that if you know something well you can talk about it convincingly. I had this knowledge, this very special, specific knowledge that not a lot of other people had at that time. Once I found my voice I realized I could literally write down my art. I have stacks of notebooks in my closet going back to my college days that are a continuous narration of all the twists and turns my life path has taken, from the traumas to the revelations. Every once and a while one of these buried secrets takes on a life of its own and becomes a work of art. 

AG: Well, thank you so much.  

BV: My pleasure. 


Bill Viola; Photo: Kira Perov

Alissa Guzman

Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.

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