Wednesday, July 4, 2018

INSPIRE ME! Bill Viola, July's Artist of the Month

By Ernest Disney-Britton
Bill Viola's "Tristan’s Ascension" (2005)
We are long-time fans of video artist Bill Viola, and that admiration has only grown as we've experienced more and more of his work in museums. Viola's works beautifully evoke a human relationship to the four elements of fire, water, wind and earth. Since the 1970s, he has demonstrated the aesthetic and emotional potential of video as art. Raised Christian, he is often cited in articles as either a practicing Buddhist or non-religious. However, there is an explicit spirituality in his work that calms and purifies the experience of the viewer.  He is a video art legend, and his new exhibition, "Bill Viola at La Nave Salinas" can be viewed until September 30th in Ibiza, Spain. Below is a 2015 interview that offers some additional insights into why Bill Viola is our INSPIRE ME! Artist of the Month.

Studio International is an international illustrated contemporary art magazine, formerly published in hard copy in London from 1964 until 1992, and electronically published since 2000. In 2015, Viola spoke to Ann McNay of Studio International at the opening of this exhibition:

Q1: Your work deals with some of the central themes of human consciousness and experience – birth, death, love, emotion and spirituality. How has it evolved over the years? Would you say your themes and interests have remained consistent? Has your viewpoint developed as you’ve garnered more personal experience, both of life and of art-making?

Bill Viola: I first used the camera and lens as a surrogate eye, to bring things closer, or to magnify them, to experiment with perception, to extend vision and make lengthy observations of simple objects. Once you do that, their essence becomes visible. So I suppose I was always interested in the inner life of the world around me.
Q2: Have you been influenced by changing technologies? You’ve spoken of the absence of solitude filling our minds with useless information. How do you protect yourself from this overload? Many artists – for example, David Hockney and Derek Boshier – have embraced the iPad and use it as a tool. I assume you are not about to follow in their footsteps?

Bill Viola: No, I am not interested in the iPad as a tool for my own art, but why not? Beautiful creations have been made with a twig and pigment. The development of the technologies of the moving image has been important for me as it broadened my palette and stimulated new work. When flat-panel screens were invented, for example, I felt liberated from the box of a TV screen, and also from the projector. I explored human emotions in the form of portraits – portraits that I could hang on the wall, or place on a shelf. What comes with today’s overwhelming glut of the moving image is that we cannot escape it. Now it is on billboards as you drive on the freeway.
Q3: You began reading about different world faiths while studying fine arts at Syracuse University in New York in the 70s. Were you brought up in a particular faith? And do you follow one now?

Bill Viola: My mother was Episcopalian and even though I went to Sunday school, I was not really brought up in a strongly Christian home. I do not follow any particular faith, but like to meditate and believe in peace and compassion.
Q4: You fell into a lake when you were six years old. What did you learn from this experience? Does it still feed into your work today?

Bill Viola: I saw the most beautiful watery world and did not want to leave. I did not realise it at first, but I think this experience was seminal in creating pieces like Five Angels for the Millennium (2001) and Ascension (2000).
Q5: Of the four elements – fire, water, air and earth – it seems you work primarily with the first two. Do they hold more significance for you? If so, in what way?

Bill Viola: I have worked with fire and water for a long time. The two seem to be opposites, but in fact are quite similar. Both can represent destruction or purification, life or liberation. Both are fluid and fascinating: they can be gentle and life-giving, or terrifying and violent. We only began working with air and earth for the work in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (2014) and it was not easy to develop the right action for air and earth. We had to strip everything down to the barest essentials and made each element a protagonist.
Q6: You have said of The Dreamers (2013) that they represent eternal life. When you first look at them, they are beautiful, but then you realise the subjects aren’t breathing. To me, therefore, I see death. Is death simply a disguise for eternal life?

Bill Viola: Water is the sustainer of life, it is the amniotic fluid, it is the place in between, where the dreamers neither take a breath nor come to the surface. Nor do they open their eyes.
Q7: For me, your most powerful works are those that focus on changing expressions. How much scripting or directing takes place for a work like this and how much is left down to the actor? Have you ever had someone come to be filmed, who simply couldn’t produce what you wanted?

Bill Viola: I spend some time getting to know the performer and we talk about deep personal experiences, which puts them into the right emotional zone. Weba Garretson, the woman in The Return, has worked with us for many years, since the Passions series. We have a good understanding. She had recently lost her mother and this “purification” with the water wall helped her through some of her grief. We try to choose people who will be good collaborators with the idea, but sometimes they do not work out, so we simply do not use their takes.
Bill Viola's "The Deluge (Going Forth By Day)", 2002, a five-part video and sound installation
Q8: In The Trial, your two actors are drenched from above with black, red and white fluids and then warm water. What exactly might these actors have been told in their briefing to prepare them for this? Presumably, they will be familiar with your work anyhow and thus expecting something along these lines?

Bill Viola: The performers were told about the fluids and the order in which they would be coming. There were emotions and feelings attached to each of the colours, but that gave way in the end to whatever the performers were experiencing. We knew that we needed to get the first take in each instance, since we needed the element of surprise and that cannot be duplicated. We had not worked with these two people before and I don’t think they knew much about the work.
Bill Viola's ‘The Trial’ (2015)
Q9: You wrote a note when you were 33 saying: “Once we have procreated, the next transition is death, but somewhere in between these two posts we look for something else – we know there must be something that lies deeper …” Do you know yet what that something is?

Bill Viola: I am still searching…

Bill Viola
Represented by: Blain|Southern | London; James Cohan | New York; and Kukje Gallery | Seoul
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