Source:The Museum of Modern Art, NY, NY (1987)
Essays by Barbara London, J. Hoberman, Donald Kuspit. Selected writings by Bill Viola.
Museum of Modern Art
Museum of Modern Art
For more than sixteen years Bill Viola has consistently used the most contemporary electronic technologies to create deceptively spare, provocative videotapes and video-and-sound installations that pursue an ancient theme: the revelation of the layers of human consciousness, Although based on realistic images, his projects go beyond representation to challenge the viewer's preconditioned expectations and viewing patterns. His work, which derives from a combination of the highly rational and the deeply intuitive, probes many levels of experience. "The real investigation is of life and being itself," Viola has said. "The medium is just the tool in this investigation." (1)
Viola gives painstaking attention to his subjects, both natural and man-made, so that the results invariably have a resplendence, depth of spirit, and intensity that make them indisputably his. He handles his recorded images in a straightforward manner; the primary special effects he employs involve slowing down, reversing, or speeding up time. This directness extends to his editing, which is as concise as it is precise: nothing is extraneous and very little is left to chance. Although his works reflect his extraordinary control, during recording he will accept the serendipitous action occurring in front of the camera, which heightens the energy of the completed piece. Because Viola is exceptionally skillful with and knowledgeable about broadcast-quality video equipment-to the extent that he operates the hardware with what appear to be reflex actions-he is free to be creative during production. He works alone, without needing the assistance of a technical middleman, so each project remains an expression of his personal vision.
Viola's primary subject is the physical and mental landscape, and the connections and interplay between the outer world and the inner realm. He is concerned with exploring the interaction of his images with the viewer's memory, as well as with the subconscious and its dreams and imagination. He is particularly interested in that moment of exchange between the viewer and the art work when energy is, released and the viewer achieves a new awareness. "In a way my work is very literal, but it has more to do with the after-experience than the actual experience in itself," he told an interviewer. "As if memory were a sort of filter, another editing process. In fact the editing is going on all the time. Images are always being created and transformed . . . I think memory is as much about the future as it is about the past . . . I'm interested in how thought is a function of time, There is a moment when the act of perception becomes conception, and that is thought. (2) For Viola the image is merely a schematic representation of a much larger system, and the process of seeing is a complex process that involves far more than surface recognition.
For many years Viola has been drawn to the numinous aspects of nature. He travels great distances to experience particular sacred locations, which become sources of personal inspiration as well as provide subject matter. He has made an effort to explore the myths of other cultures, and over the years has sought out remote locations revered by native American, Near Eastern, Asian, and Pacific island peoples. Thematically he draws from the rituals of his own Christianity, as well as from Buddhism and shamanism. His studies have included the literature of primitive mythology and of Greek philosophy, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Judeo-Christian mysticism, and Sufism. He subscribes to the Eastern philosophies that place man in the context of nature's ongoing cycle; that see an infinite, eternal entity as being embodied in all animate and inanimate things; and that recognize the whole as being represented in its parts.
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.
Born in 1951, Bill Viola grew up in Flushing, New York. While in public school he discovered he could escape into his own creative world through drawing. Playing drums with a local rock band, he became committed to music, later recognizing how important it had been to learn the discipline required to develop a skill. Like other teenagers at the time, he was indirectly affected by the social upheaval of the 1960s, and the questioning of many traditional, middle-class values.
Viola studied art at Syracuse University, graduating from the College of Visual and Performing Arts in 1973. Not interested in pursuing more traditional art mediums, he spent time in the "experimental studio" of the art department. He explored performance aft-responding to the intensity of working with the manipulation of the self in a live situation-before looking into experimental film. With friends he would analyze the image, camera, and structure of films by such artists as Michael Snow, Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, and Stan Brakhage. Around the same time, during his sophomore year, his professor purchased an early Sony portable, blackand-white camera and simple reel-to-reel recorder for the "experimental studio." At the same time Viola was studying electronic music. In an interview he described the connection between the two mediums:
The crucial thing for me was the process of going through an electronic system, working with these standard kinds of circuits which became a perfect introduction to a general electronic theory. It gave me a sense that the electronic signal was a material that could be worked with. This was another really important realization. Physical manipulation is fundamental to our thought processes-just watch the way a baby learns. It's why most people have so much trouble approaching electronic media. When electronic energies finally became concrete for me, like sounds are to a composer, I really began to learn. Soon I made what was for me an easy switch over to video. I never thought about [video] in terms of images so much as electronic process, a signal (3)
Viola began working full-time with video, which unlike Super-8 film, allowed him to view the image both before and during recording. He began by creating exercises that deliberately explored structure and form. "When Marshall McLuhan wrote his famous manifesto ´the medium is the message,' he was saying that communication is transmitted by the very form of the medium itself."(4) He was influenced by Gene Youngblood's book Expanded Cinema (1974), in which he described the technical processes of video as being key formal elements of the aesthetics of the medium. At first Viola saw his raw material as being only the technology, but then came to understand how important the other half of the art process is: the viewing experience, those moments of dynamic interaction called perception. Inspired also by the video and performance pieces of artists Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci, Viola set up problemsolving situations, working with the physical aspects of both electronics and architectural space. He was dealing conceptually with video's properties, and emotionally with the representation of personal experience.
In the United States this was a period of broad experimentation with alternative forms of expression: standard art materials and venues were being challenged, and for many artists the act of experiencing art took precedence over the production of tangible, salable art objects. Considerable artistic activity explored the environment in the Southwest, with its vast, open desert spaces and provocative traces of Indian culture. In this setting such artists as Nauman, Robert Irwin, and James Turrell broke away from the restrained concerns of the then popular Minimalism to develop their subjective, process-oriented, spatial pieces that explored individual perception. At the same time Peter Campus was carefully investigating the characteristics of "live" video. Campus wrote that "the video camera makes possible an exterior point of view simultaneous with one's own. This advance over the film camera is due to the vidicon tube, similar to the retina of the eye, continuously transposing light (photon) energy to electrical energy . . . . It is easy to utilize video to clarify perceptual situations because it separates the eye surrogate from the eyebrain experience we are all too familiar with." (5)
After graduation Viola attended a workshop given by Campus. Viola respected Campus's intensity of vision and the aggressive way he dealt with issues of self-confrontation, and he responded to the overtly emotional tenor of his carefully controlled, ominously lit installations. Today Viola believes Campus to be "one of the most important artists."(6) At that time Viola quickly advanced when, with other students, he helped set up Synapse, a two-way cable system and a one-inch color-video studio, at the University. This was one of the first "alternative" media centers in New York state. Training as a studio engineer, he worked intently at Synapse on projects by other students and invited artists, gaining firsthand experience with a three-camera, broadcast-quality studio situation. He learned how live television works, and how to use a video switcher to do live editing independent of, but simultaneous to, recording in the manner of low-budget, television soap-opera productions.
Viola met "new music" composers Alvin Lucier and Robert Ashley at Syracuse in 1972, and during the summer of 1973 he came into contact with composers David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, and David Behrman at an experimental music workshop in Chocorua, New Hampshire. These three weeks heightened his awareness not only of electronic theory and circuit design, but also of sound as a malleable, sculptural material. For the first time he became aware of how integral sound is to the perception of space. After this experience his projects developed from discrete exercises to focused works.
That summer at Chocorua he and the musicians John Driscoll, Linda Fisher, and Phil Edelstein formed the Composers Inside Electronics Group; over the next few years they performed their own compositions as well as Tudor's sound sculpture Rain Forest (conceived initially in 1968 for a dance by Merce Cunningham). In this environmental installation transducers were attached to such "found" objects as metal box springs, lawn sprinklers, and oil drums, which were suspended from the ceiling of the performance/exhibition space. The transducers drove prerecorded sounds through each object, which acted as resonators and filters to enhance or subdue frequencies in the acoustic source. The musicians chose sounds that worked with each particular object. Viewers experienced the installation by moving randomly through the space, a tactile composition of resonating materials and sounds. This structured situation, which also allowed for spontaneous interaction, appealed to Viola and influenced his work.
Two years later, in 1975, while he was technical director of Art/Tapes/22, an informal consumer-format production studio for artists in Florence, Viola became interested in cathedrals as rich, acoustic spaces, and spent his limited free time audiotaping local masses. He saw the cathedral as a functioning, living system, as well as a three-dimensional model of historic ideologies, a concept that later enriched his installations.
The following year he moved back to New York. When David Loxton and Carol Brandenburg invited Viola to be an artist-in-residence at WNET/Thirteen's Artists' Television Laboratory, Viola had sustained access to broadcast-quality computer editing. This allowed him to bring his videotape projects up to his conceptual level technically and to manipulate time more precisely. He worked with John Godfrey, the TV Lab's visionary engineer who in the early 1970s adapted professional editing equipment to an artist's unconventional vision. Viola developed his ideas about using carefully recorded, realistic images, merging actual and imagined time in the short works collected in his first WNET production, "Four Songs" (1976). Assembled in much the same way a musician arranges individual songs on a record album, each of these short works is centered on a particular location, sound, and action. As with his other early work, the pieces revolve around himself-he is the initiator of the feelings and ideas, in addition to being the intense subject/performer. At each site he worked with the "live" camera/monitor to select and compose his imagery, treating each location as his raw material. In these tapes Viola is there to engage the viewer, whose own involvement is essential to completing the spare piece.
Travel has always been an integral aspect of Viola's work. His urge to travel began as a strong desire to record outside of the professional studio, with its heavy, immobile color cameras. Initially this was the only place artists could have some control of their imagery. The advent of portable and flexible broadcast quality color cameras in the mid-1970s meant it was finally possible to videotape with a degree of precision in outdoor locations. Viola was committed to experiencing first-hand those remote places that through photography, television, and literature have become so familiar. Whereas it took Gauguin tremendous time and effort to work in remote Tahiti, "today it's almost a given that you can select any geographic position within any culture and there set up your camera and microphone."(7) For Viola travel has become an important way of life-a means of seeing the vulnerable self mirrored through the eyes and responses of another people, and of exploring the ways that one's culture defines one's being. His choice of a location grows out of unconscious needs; once he selects a setting, as a preparation for his journey, he immerses himself in its culture and history. "My work is about finding those places on earth where I need to be to have those ideas I'm carrying with me best be expressed."(8)
Viola's 1979 videotape Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat), which openly expresses his transcendent world view, reflects a change in his subject matter and his approach to it. In this work he moved away from action events in which he is the performer and entered a more ambiguous, imaginary realm. Chott magically captures the optical and acoustic distortions caused by the natural elements that result in, for example, desert mirages. After doing preliminary research on optical illusions created by the desert sun and the effect of a telephoto lens, Viola made a trip to the Sahara Desert in Tunisia with Kira Perov, an accomplished photographer from Australia who has collaborated with him on all subsequent projects. They traveled through the salt fields in a rented car; struggling with the intense heat and harsh wind that filled their lungs with sand, they experienced an environment similar to those into which Jewish, Islamic, and early Christian mystics exiled themselves.
The first work that Viola began without meticulously formulating its structure beforehand, Chott was also the first project in which the landscape was the principal subject. Viola is unusual in that he approaches each frame of a piece much as a still photographer. Working only with Perov, and briefly with sound engineer Bob Bielecki, Viola used one video camera set on a tripod, and from a fixed vantage point he meticulously framed his subject. After waiting for up to several days for what he considered ideal atmospheric conditions, he recorded the image, at times moving his camera only a few inches from one shot to the next, planning so that later, during the editing process, he could fabricate a "zoom." Drawing upon the associations a particular site evokes and instinctively searching for its archetypal symbols, Viola slowly discovers the distinctive character of a place, probing the power and the energy of each space. On the desert this was the pastel-colored mirages floating mysteriously near the horizon.
Back in his New York studio Viola laboriously made his "rough edit," carefully developing the rhythm of this cinematic, nonverbal narrative of ordinary events slowly moving in real time, then made the "final edit" at WNET/Thirteen in New York. The beginning of Chott focuses briefly on the snowy midwestern American plains, then abruptly switches to the arid Tunisian desert using carefully matched horizon lines of each scene. Capitalizing upon video's jewellike luminosity, Viola's atmospheric images recall Delacroix's radiant watercolors of the same arid area. Maintaining the recorded, ambient natural sounds, Chott's other-worldliness remains grounded in reality acoustically: recognition of distant objects, such as an oncoming pair of motorcycles, comes first through aural rather than visual cues. Real time appears to be aggressively extended, compelling viewers to assume Viola's mind set. It is a dream state of suspended animation, recalling the hallucinogenic, counterculture days of the 1960s and early 1970s. Even while working within the artists' programs of Public Television, Viola has never paid attention to entertainment timing-a major concern of his television producers--and has instead conscientiously adhered to his own unique vision.
Viola concurrently pursues both his videotapes and installations, exploring similar themes in them. The hiatuses between productions derive from his need for time for planning, and from waiting for the right opportunities. Viola's environmental installations are symbolic, emotional arenas where components drawn from the everyday world are juxtaposed and conceptually merge---elusive video/sound images are given palpable existence, and tangible objects are endowed with strong mental and emotional associations. Viola's evocative distillations simultaneously take on the solemnity of a devotional setting and the disturbing sense of being on the edge of a storm. More diagrammatic and less about representation, his installations are emotional, and function as gateways to areas as profound and as challenging as the viewer's receptiveness permits. In discussing what he is striving to achieve, Viola frequently quotes William Blake: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is, infinite." Viola has long been absorbed with how, during the eighteenth century, Blake was constructing a symbolic model of the universe that was freed from empirical observation. He has been particularly drawn to Blake's method of representing the world through symbols, ideas, and spiritual phenomena.
Viola's schematic installations function as metaphors for our subconscious landscape, and acknowledge the turbulent activity constantly occurring there. Beginning with He Weeps for You (1975), his work has depicted increasingly overt expressions of violence. The artist's logic and restraint, his careful control of the cool, formal constructions, sharply contrast with the agitated, potentially volatile content, resulting in an underlying brittle tension.
Viola is attentive to the overall spatial design of each installation as well as to the minute details. Upon entering Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House (1982), viewers immediately perceive Viola's dimly lit, multifaceted environment as a rich conceptual realm.We enter his world of darkness, which represents the nonverbal, more profound areas of irrational consciousness generally associated with night. Viewers become active participants, moving at their own pace through the long, harsh room, randomly discovering the integrated elements of this spare work that resembles a stage set. At the center of Reasons for Knocking is a monitor depicting the artist as a vulnerable presence (the same unassuming performer that is found in his separate 1983 videotape of the same title). Not having slept for three days, he is there alone, confronting his nonstop, subconscious thoughts.
Through a carefully calibrated acoustic system, the space periodically fills with an aggressive, sonorous boom triggered by the gentler second sound track, which can be heard only by the viewer occupying the one available spotlit seat at the center of the gallery. This is the same crude, interrogation-like wooden chair the artist sat in to record the videotape. Seated, the viewer faces a monitor and is confronted with the prerecorded image of an exhausted, immobile Viola, who stares intently ahead. He establishes the same direct relationship with the audience that home television viewers have with news personalities. Viola's attention keeps drifting off, but he is prevented from dozing by a hand that ominously and regularly appears to rap him on the head with a rolled-up magazine. The viewer wears a clumsy, old-fashioned headphones and hears Viola's every gulp, sniffle, and loud rap on his head, which had been picked up during videotaping by microphones placed in his ears. This unedited, forty-five minute recording was mixed with a soft, separately audiotaped stream-of-consciousness monologue about his boyhood reminiscences, so that the combined sound track gives the distinct feeling one is physically and mentally inside the artist's head. Seen and heard at such close range over an extended period of time, the work strongly evokes the artist's physical presence and demands a response. Viewers are either intimately involved participants, sharing the experience as much as they are able, or else peripheral observers. Both are kept off-guard in anticipating the irregularly occurring loud boom. The tightly focused work addresses issues of identity and explores as well various states of consciousness. The length of the videotape invokes the states both of waiting for inspiration and of sublimated fury.
At the entrance to the installation, Viola tells the story of Phineas Gage, a nineteenth-century railroad employee who miraculously survived a work accident in which a metal rod went through his head, destroying part of his brain and altering his personality. Still rational and somewhat social, Gage and his rod traveled with a road show, and he became a subject of scientists interested in the functions of the brain. For Viola Gage is a metaphor for the complexity of the mind.
Viola reached a new level with Room for St. John of the Cross (1983), in which he metaphorically depicts the interchangeability of the subconscious with the conscious. Room for St. John of the Cross is dedicated to the sixteenth-century mystical Spanish poet who was a follower of St. Theresa, the radical Catholic prioress who sought to return the Carmelite order to austerity, prayer, and contemplation. For six months in 1577, when St. John was confined to a miniscule, windowless prison cell and regularly tortured for his heretical beliefs, he composed his ecstatic poetry, which repeatedly speaks of profound love and nature. St. John and his poetry are reference points for Viola's dramatic metaphor about solitude and anguish being valuable sources of strength. Unlike the always-changing external world, the rich, internal realm is always there, becoming more accessible with curtailed physical activity and heightened concentration.
The work occupies a dark 30-by-40 foot room, and contains two forceful images. One is a large, grainy, black-and-white videotape of the craggy, snow-covered Sierra mountains projected onto the wall opposite the entrance. Shot with a hand-held camera and telephoto lens from a moving car, the jerky movements of the tape become dizzily exaggerated in projection. The space reverberates with the abrasive sounds of wind against the microphone during the recording. The other image is sculptural. Near the middle of the room is a tangible but inaccessible 5-by-5-by-6-foot dirt-floor cubicle. Visible only through its small, glowing window is a well-lit interior tableau: on top of a tiny wooden table sits a metal pitcher, a glass of water, and a miniature television monitor. On the screen is a small, clear video image of a verdant mountain range, shot in long still takes with a stationary camera on a tripod. A ghostly human presence permeates the empty cell in the form of the barely audible poetry, gently whispered in Spanish, of St. John. Tension is established between the intangibility and temporality of the video, sound, and light, and the materiality of the room with the contents of the carefully placed cell. As the center of attention the pitcher and water glass assume significance and seem to resonate with energy.
St. John of the Cross is a cumulative experience: temporal like the theater, the whole cannot be grasped in one instant; and multidimensional like sculpture, the work cannot be seen from just one spot. It contains contrasting concepts of time: the past, which is recalled through a specific period in St. John's life; the present, with the viewer interacting with Viola's prepared environment; and an eternal timelessness, which is reflected in nature's ahistorical, regenerative cycles and the unchanging mountain. The most important place his work exists is in the memory of the viewer, where time becomes more fluid and blends with the imagination. (9)
Viola made a major leap both technically and conceptually during the time he and Perov lived in Japan for a year and a half, beginning in 1980. Since the mid-1970s he has been traveling to the Pacific, initially to attend a festival in Tokyo, then to the Solomon Islands to produce one of the first color-video field recordings of indigenous music, dance, and ritual, Memories of Ancestral Power (the Moro Movement in the Solomon Islands) (1977-78), and later to Fiji. He has been closely drawn to Japan, with its venerable culture that perceives life as a continuum and nature as an acknowledged source of poetry and power. Despite its reverence for nature, the culture maintains a safe distance from the potentially destructive forces by metaphorically portraying nature's pure and beautiful but melancholic side in the form of the rock garden and flower arrangement. The highly refined icon then assumes more importance than reality. This is related to Viola's interest in Blake's emblematic graphic style, which is medieval more than post-Renaissance, and not unlike Oriental painting.
Based in Tokyo in a tiny studio apartment, Viola and Perov actively explored the Japanese traditions-language, architecture, calligraphy, No theater, and zazen (meditation). They studied Zen Buddhism with the free-spirited priest Daien Tanaka, meditating daily and often informally meeting with him afterward in a Mr. Donut coffee shop. Viola presented his videotapes in museums and alternative media centers throughout Japan, and frequently met with younger artists. He collaborated with sculptor Fujiko Nakaya and produced Tunings from the Mountain (1980), acoustics for her outdoor Fog Sculpture-A Fog, Sound, and Light Festival in Kawaji Onsen. In this outdoor piece he modulated and amplified ambient natural sounds, performing live with a traditional Taiko drum group.
The Sony Corporation allowed Viola to work over a four-month period in a professional, one-inch-video editing facility at the company's broadcast and developmental engineering headquarters in Atsugi, just outside Tokyo. Viola found this a stimulating environment, for it allowed him to informally discuss his complex technical needs in theoretical terms directly with the inventors of the equipment. At Atsugi he completed his twelve-minute, four part video fugue about natural, cyclical transition, Ancient of Days (1979-81). The carefully calibrated first sequence, in reverse of actual time, zooms in on a burning table that reconstructs itself from its own ashes and flames, and concludes with Viola hammering at the intact table.
At Sony Viola edited his fifty-six minute Hatsu Yume (FirstDream) (1981), which he shot with a broadcast-quality camera lent by the company. It was the culmination of his long stay in Japan. The title Hatsu Yume comes from ideas about regeneration and the Japanese concept that the first dream during the eve of January 1 not only presages the New Year, but also repeats generations of history. The work is a reflection upon the complexity of nature, representing both its glorious bounty and its terrifying power. The tape opens with the sunrise and the ebb and flow of ocean waves on shore. It continues with Mt. Fuji, then goes on to a mysterious bamboo grove, verdant rice fields, a boulder with small rocks precariously set along its top, and a hot spring disgorging steam at a mountain shrine. In Tokyo's bustling fish market, Tsukiji, the sea's bounty is sorted into species for bartering. On the deck of a brightly lit night-fishing boat, with mechanized lines slowly coiling and uncoiling like a monster, a solitary captain gazes out to the horizon, while near his feet rejected squid lie dying. The camera moves aggressively through the dark night toward another boat before going to calmer waters where ceremonial candles float. Through the harsh, nocturnal lights of Tokyo streets, a lonely figure approaches the camera and strikes a match, the flame suddenly filling the frame before he lights a cigarette. Rain cascades down a car windshield, through which shine the abstract, kaleidoscopic colors of the city. As with other works, Viola either set the camera in one fixed position on a tripod; or he made sensuous, fluid, 360-degree horizontal pans; or, especially in night scenes, he moved a hand-held camera freely and randomly, so that it darted like the mind can, with a frenzied effect. Each of the images and settings in Hatsu Yume has a separate symbolic meaning for the Japanese, but seen collectively they provide the Western viewer with a profound, almost intuitive sense of the culture.
For Viola time is an integral, material aspect of video, and has been a major theme and preoccupation. He studies his subjects intensely, and leaves images on the screen long enough to be unsettling and to challenge viewers' expectations. His intention is to move the viewer on a very direct level, to the point that he or she will relive his experience. Such close involvement is a form of control, and expanding time is central to this process of drawing in the viewer. In Hatsu Yume Viola alternates between the pace of material as it was recorded and sequences extended in slow motion, so that a hiker's walk becomes a graceful, primal dance. Only in editing does he manipulate the image, extending or compressing time. Viewers lose track of these temporal changes unless they are paying attention to the ambient sounds of insects, birds, human voices, and motors, which when expanded become deeper and more substantial. In discussing his work Viola often talks about the "Z-axis" as being the axis of attention, saying that by nature we are tied into a certain window of perception or rate of thought. Taken outside of that, we begin to see things we would have been totally unaware of in a normal rate. Slow motion is a means of forcefully holding the viewer's attention. He thinks about the Z-axis not only in visual but also in temporal terms; time opens up and reveals something new inside of a moment:
In the conceptual realm, the Z-axis relates to the depth of thought that an image triggers, trains of thought that run off of that so we go into deeper levels of meaning. Studying is like the Z-axis: something that initially was a brief thought becomes richer. All of these processes are mirrored in the evolution of technology. The video disc and computers provide the technological metaphors, or representations of these aspects of our lives. The time element of the Z-axis is time expansion and compression, but differs from the visual, which if blown up has noise and grain, so that the resolution becomes grainy. You can make an intellectual jump in acknowledging the blow-up to be as interesting as the initial image in the photograph. When you expand rather than reduce time it becomes as complex as the "real" time or normal rate it was expanded from. It keeps opening up. Also in terms of shrinking time, something is always being compared back to the time it takes the viewer to watch or experience a phenomenon happening. It is important to realize the difference between the experience and the memory of the experience-the residue of the experience in time." (10)
In 1981 Viola and Perov settled in southern California to be near the austere desert landscape, which he feels has had a considerable effect on contemporary American art.
The power of the desert is that it reduces the size and importance of the individual, until you're just a little black speck. The senses seem ridiculously inept at dealing with an environment that's so overwhelmingly greater. Death is everywhere; you are aware of your mortality. You place value on those experiences and discuss them in a hierarchical way. But you can't talk about the mechanics of that experience. It's a different spirituality than the one you read about in books. You feel it but you can't talk about it. It's so strong . . . What happens, for me, when I get outside of the man-made world in that dramatic a way is that I have experiences that up until that point I had identified with art and what art should do for my life. To see art as part of this larger context is to realize it is only a small part of a larger picture. The first time I went out there was very important in that it broke down the boundaries of thoughts that held me within the art world itself. It's like a figure/ground reversal. I saw the art world as this little category that we've made a space for in the larger cultural structures that we've created." (11)
In 1982 Viola and Perov visited Ladakh in Northern India to experience Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. They traveled by jeep, staying in rustic dwellings, compelled simply to "be in that space, feel the energy, breathe the air. "12 In 1984 they returned to Fiji to observe Hindu fire-walking ceremonies of the South Indians in Suva. Material recorded in Fiji as well as in the American Southwest and Canada has been integrated into I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like (1986), the title drawn from song 1.164 of the ancient Sanskrit Rig-Veda. Viola edited this eighty-nine-minute videotape over a sixmonth period in his studio on recently acquired professional equipment. His unlimited access to this state-of-the-art system has allowed him the luxury of developing his editing ideas more deliberately.
I Do Not Know What It Is I am Like reflects Viola's longstanding interest in death and in animal mythology, particularly in shamanism, in which animals function as power sources and serve as the shaman's guide on missions through the spirit world. Viola punctuates the work with the ceremonial Hindu drumming, which he uses to stress the importance of the beating heart as the center of the life force, the individual's universe. The tape's disconcerting climax is the becalmed trance state that is reached during the fire-walking ceremony when, through extraordinary control, mind and body function as one. Drawing from the dark side of nature, this epic study of transcendence shows how we have grown out of touch with these valuable, always present, primordial experiences and feelings. Confronting "pure existence" we can intuitively know what cannot be deduced logically, "know thyself" being central to spiritual awakening. (13)
Viola's objective always is to reach out and touch the voice of nature that exists within each of us below the surface of our consciousness, which he does in his most recent installation, Passage (1987), again by manipulating time. A two-year old's birthday party is the ostensible subject of the twenty-minute tape, which is dramatically slowed down to such an extent that it moves from frame to frame in suspended animation, playing through only once during the day. As a luminous, rear-screen video projection, the tape fills the large 11by-16-foot gallery wall opposite the 20-foot-long entrance corridor. Physically and temporally magnified to a scale that overwhelms viewers, the spontaneous actions of the ritualized event are symbolic of passing time and seem to be choreographed and almost tactile. The tremendous scale of the image refers to the monumentality of childhood memories, which over the years assume mythic proportions.
Bill Viola is constantly searching for greater understanding of the spirital heritage of humankind, looking beyond individual limitations toward a more collective, universal mind. For nearly two decades he has seriously followed his poetic vision, working consistently and forcefully with tremendous freedom on the fringes of both the art and commercial television worlds, gaining increasing international recognition for his beautifully crafted and distinctive work. Through the rich vocabulary of his highly developed imagery, Viola probes that elusive area inbetween the physical present and the timeless world beyond.
1. Raymond Bellour, "An Interview with Bill Viola," October, 34 (Fall 1985), p.101.
2. Ibid., pp.103,111.
3. Ibid., pp. 92-93.
4. From an unpublished interview by Barbara London, June 1,1985.
5. Peter Campus, Peter Campus: Closed Circuit Video (Syracuse, NY: Everson Museum of Art, 1974), unpaginated.
6. London interview.
9. Michael Nash, "Bill Viola's re-visions of mortality," High Performance 37 (Los Angeles) pp. 63--64. 10. London interview.
13. Released on laser video disc, the work can be experienced like a book of poetry. Viewers have more control over the material, and can change the order in which they view the sections or can review selected passages at different speeds.