Transcendence and Transformation: Q+A with Bill Viola

Bill Viola

Catherine's Room, 2001 (detail)

Color video polyptych on five LCD flat panels mounted on wall

38.1 x 246.4 x 5.7 cm

Performer: Weba Garretson

Photo: Kira Perov




Bill Viola is the leading artist for enacting transcendent spiritual experience through his video images that break the borderline of still photos and moving pictures. For over 40 years, Viola has been vital in establishing video as a crucial contemporary art form while expanding its scope in terms of content, style, technology and historical reference. With his interests in Eastern and Western art and spiritual traditions—Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism and Christian mysticism—Viola’s work focuses on the life cycle and sensory perception.

Currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, “Bill Viola: Liber Insularum” is a major exhibition that includes 15 installations. The Reflecting Pool (1977–79) is the only early work, but its technique and theme are as current as the rest of the pieces. While reflection, time and human connection continue to be the themes in the show, other selected pieces from the “Passions” series (2000–2002) focus on the in-depth study of various extreme expressions and their detailed emotional transformation, as in The Quintet of the Astonished (2000) and Observance (2002). There are also five pieces from Viola’s “Transfigurations” series (2007-2008) depicting people at the threshold between life and death.

CAMILLE XIN I’d like to begin by discussing your influential “Transfigurations” series, of which Ocean Without a Shore was created for the Venice Biennale in 2007.

BILL VIOLA I was invited to make an on-site video installation in a small 15th-century deconsecrated chapel, San Gallo, just off the Piazza San Marco. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas until I saw the place. There were three large altars, which, according to the Christian tradition, were places for the dead to connect with the living. I was inspired by a text of the Andalusian Sufi master Ibn Arabi (1165-1240): “The self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or no end, in this world and the next.” On each altar I mounted a vertical plasma screen that showed a series of individuals walking toward us from a dark, obscure black and white world. They pass through an invisible threshold in the form of a wall of water that is so transparent and clear that we cannot see it until the flow is disturbed. When a person is passing through the water, a transformation to full color begins.

XIN In this series, the grainy black-and-white image in the background co-exists with the high-definition color image of the foreground in the same frame. I’m curious how you achieved that effect.

VIOLA I worked with two innovative technologies. We created a wall of water that was 10 feet wide and 8 feet high. Water was pouring over a specially designed laser-cut razor edge. It took us three days to make it completely level and precisely aligned, so the water was like a sheet of glass. The other was an optical device specially designed for this project by a group called Pace. They created a mirror/prism system to align the latest high-definition video camera with my 25-year-old black-and-white surveillance camera. Through this optical system, the two images were superimposed in the editing room.

XIN The effect is mesmerizing. I think art and technology work more closely now than in any other time in history.

VIOLA Yes, this connection is going to be monumental in the coming century. But it is also the marriage of technology and biology. All technology is based on the exchange of energy. Since the human brain runs on about 4 watts of electricity, we are connected in a fundamental way to the same energy.

XIN We tend to think of video technology as being machines and digital codes, but you have realized many spiritual images with this medium.

VIOLA The camera is the embodiment of an always-open eye. It can teach us how to see deeply, which is the essence of all spiritual practices. To my mind, technology is ultimately a spiritual force and a part of our inner beings.

XIN The loss of your parents had a profound effect on you, and each time, your work experienced an incredible transformation. Your mother passed away in 1991, the same year that your second son was born. Since then your work has addressed cycles of birth, death and rebirth. The best examples are The Passing (1991), Heaven and Earth (1992) and Nantes Triptych (1992).

VIOLA I have been interested in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions since I was in college. But after losing my mother, it really hit me hard that we are here on this earth for a very short period of time and that we must make the most of it. This is when I really began to make a deeper connection to the spiritual dimension.

XIN Your early video works would often record simple actions that reflected your inner life in an abstract way. But since The Greeting (1995), you’ve used actors and staged the scenes.

VIOLA Up until then, I was never interested in narratives and the classic way of making movies. Most of the time, I operated the camera and did everything with the help of my partner, Kira Perov, who has worked on all the pieces with me since 1979. Although in college I wasn’t interested in “classical” works of art, gradually I developed an appreciation for traditional art and began looking at Renaissance and Mannerist painting. I became fascinated by Pontormo’s altarpiece Visitation (1528) and wanted to make a work dealing with the essence of a social situation with interrupting and shifting relations. I envisioned it in extreme slow motion, resembling a painting with three women clothed in the beautiful colors of Pontormo. For the effect I wanted to achieve, I needed the control that actors could provide.

XIN It opened up a brand-new expressive territory and changed the nature of your work. In 1998, you were a guest scholar at the Getty Research Institute [Los Angeles], where you took part in a yearlong study devoted to The Representation of the Passions. 

VIOLA One of the central questions was how the extremes of emotion can be represented. I studied paintings and books on devotional art and mystical art, and made notes about facial expressions in art history. Around this period, in early 1999, my father fell sick and passed away.

XIN The loss of your father led you to another transformational change in which your work began to focus on the emotions and spirituality in an unprecedented way. Your narration became simpler and more direct. From 2000-2002 you created the “Passions” series with portraits of people in various stages of personal expression, exclusively exploring the power of the emotions in slow motion.

VIOLA In my art training in the early 1970s emotion was a forbidden zone. It took a painful loss in my personal life for my work to get to the root source of my emotions and the nature of emotional expression itself. I wanted to stretch out the emotions of joy, sorrow, anger and fear, to see how far I could take them. In order to go deeper with actors, I learned to direct from a friend, Weba Garretson, who appears in many of the “Passions” videos.

XIN In The Quintet of the Astonished, we see five people in heightened emotional states in extreme slow motion. Is it influenced by your study of Renaissance paintings?

VIOLA Yes. Mainly by Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi (1462) for the composition, lighting and the non-interactive relationship between the five people, as well as Bosch’s Christ Mocked (1490-1500) for the shifting surface of emotion and the subtle relationships between the mockers and Christ. However, I did not intend to restage historical paintings, but attempted to express what the old master couldn’t paint­-movement. I recorded The Quintet of the Astonished at 300 frames per second, so it would play back at 24 fps in order to create seamless and steady extreme slow motion on the screen. A 45-second take of a range of emotions becomes 10 minutes of extreme slow motion.

XIN Upon first glance, the video looks like a still photograph. Like the paintings that inspired them, it is vivid, lifelike and silent.

VIOLA Still image can’t embody or create time like motion does. Video realized what classic painters have always tried to achieve.

XIN In The Quintet of the Astonished, the five people onscreen seem to be absorbed in separate emotional worlds.

VIOLA I was very taken by Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi, in which the five people are not looking at each other, nor at the Christ child. On the set, I assigned a different emotion to each actor separately, so they didn’t know what the other actors’ emotions would be.

XIN In other pieces you asked your performer to express three or four emotions in sequence. What did you discover when you slowed down the speed?

VIOLA I realized that even the smallest fragment of human emotion has infinite resolution-the more you magnify it, the more it keeps unfolding. Emotion is the very element that binds us together in a very strong way. In many esoteric practices, the gradual slowing of breathing produces mindfulness.

XIN For most of the “Passions” series, including The Quintet of the Astonished and Observance, your camera focuses on the emotional responses by the performers to an event not visible to the viewer. And we are viewing them being witnesses to this event.

VIOLA Mirror images have always fascinated human beings, and the most evocative mirror image is the reflection of our self in another’s eye. This is the essence of art—the reflection of a reflection.

XIN Since people typically suppress their emotions in public, I feel like I’m not looking at their physical images—I’m looking at their inner life.

VIOLA My training in art school was all about responding to artworks in an intellectual or cultural way-in other words, as an outside viewer. But I have learned that it is not our job to simply look, but to participate in the image. During the time I was at the Getty, my father was dying slowly, inexorably. When I visited the Art Institute of Chicago I walked into the gallery of 15th-century paintings. There was Dieric Bouts’s Weeping Madonna (1480–1500) with tears streaming down her face, eyes swollen and red in excruciating detail. I began sobbing uncontrollably. Later I realized what had happened. Like a mirror, we were both crying—the painting and me. I had fully realized the picture in a way I never thought about before. The function of an artwork changed dramatically for me at that moment-it moved from an object of art to an inner, private, emotional experience.

XIN Catherine’s Room (2001) is a very different work from the rest of the “Passions” series. Calm, protected and peaceful, as if you’ve found a habitation of your interior life after exploration of extreme emotions. It tells a story of a woman’s daily rituals in different time space on five separate small LCD panels. It’s full of mindful feminine spirituality and inner strength.

VIOLA The form resembles 15th-century Italian Renaissance predella panels, sequences of small narrative paintings in Christian art that were used to depict the life of the saints. The title of the piece is taken from Catherine of Siena, the 14th-century saint and mystic. The simple settings and activities represent the passage of time, the key element in this piece. In each panel, a woman performs an action from a scene of her daily routine in real time without a cut. We see her life unfolding before us.

XIN I noticed the change of the time of day through the little windows, as well as the change of seasons via the tree branches outside of the windows.

VIOLA Since the five panels play simultaneously we see all these actions in parallel time. In Renaissance art, the saint is often depicted multiple times in the same painting.

XIN I wish you would disclose the source of your inspiration in a wall text or catalogue, so we could see more clearly the relationship between contemporary scenes and traditional art and spirituality. Your other main themes in this exhibition are reflection and identity. The Reflecting Pool is the best example from your early works. Surrender (2001) is also a unique and intricate piece.

VIOLA Surrender shows an emotional trajectory between a couple in a diptych. The plasma monitors are mounted vertically, end to end, so that one of them is upside down. They seem to reflect each other, as in a mirror. They even mirror themselves with symmetrical movements, bending toward each other as if they might actually merge or kiss. It is only at that moment that the viewers realize there is a water surface beyond the frames between the two video panels. However, once their bodies straighten up to their original positions, the water ripples suddenly appear and distort their images.

XIN It was a surprise to realize that the images I had been watching were actually their reflections on water. But water isn’t just a formal device, but also their emotional source. It seems to me that once the emotional couple realizes they are looking at each other’s reflections, they seem even more anguished. Their images become more distorted and eventually disappear. There are many layers on top of the story of Narcissus.

VIOLA Everything is a reflection of everything else. A reflection reveals to us who we are. When we interact with people, there is constant energy going back and forth. There is always the desire to reach each other, not just physically but emotionally. However, we might realize that humans are ultimately separate, and can never be one. This is why the two people are in separate screens.

XIN The first time I encountered your works was when I saw The Raft (2004). Its concept and visual impact started to change my mind about video art.

VIOLA Thank you. The Raft came from an idea that a group of innocent people face and fight off an enormous power that tries to destroy them. I chose water because it embodies the power and movement of the universe. It is both comforting and terrifying with its endless cycle of creation and destruction.

XIN I know you had a near-drowning experience at the age of 6, and you had included water in many of your early works. But after both of your parents passed away, you connected water with death and rebirth in a more profound and powerful way. Since then, water never appears in your work as pure landscape. It sometimes acts as a character, sometimes as a mirror to reflect or distort images, sometimes as the natural or spiritual force, sometimes as a barrier or divider of two worlds.

VIOLA Yes, and sometimes as a site of birth and rebirth as in Five Angels for the Millennium (2001) and Lover’s Path (2006) as well as other images I did for Peter Sellars’s vision of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

XIN The Canadian Opera Company is staging this version now in Toronto [through Feb. 23]. Your sweeping slow-motion videos of water, fire and people are as integral to the action as the singers and music.

VIOLA It is played in real time, in sync with Wagner’s score and projected on a wide screen that is suspended above and behind the singers on a minimal stage. There is some archival footage but it’s mostly new works specifically shot for this opera.

XIN In Peter Sellars’s words, what we see in Tristan und Isolde is a true retrospective of your oeuvre. In the end I have to say that even though there is death and mourning in your works, there is always the feeling of hope, the hope of connection. That’s how I felt walking out of your exhibition.

VIOLA In general I am a positive person. I believe in the power of connectivity, whether it is between two individuals or millions. We are here to touch as many people as we can in this world.