SEEING THAT WHICH IS
Making one's way from room to room, one enters charged environments whose spaces employ video imagery, light and sound to confront and stimulate, seduce and sedate. The effects are at once dramatic and subtle. A sense of vulnerability and heightened awareness develops as you realize that it is impossible to remain detached and disengaged as you move through the exhibition. For this exhibition is not only about Bill Viola and his work-
it is also about you.
The mid-career retrospective exhibition of Bill Viola's work, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January 11, 1998, underscores Viola's emphasis on using technology as a vehicle for exploring the deeper questions of philosophy and religion-how we perceive and who we are. For some 25 years Viola has pioneered the use of video images, installations and sound environments to explore the phenomena of sense perception as a vehicle to self-awareness. And in classic Zen fashion, the truth of the experience lies not in what we see "out there", but in what we discover "in here".
Viola began experimenting with video as a student at Syracuse University and later as a technical consultant and video preparator at Everson Museum in Syracuse, where David Ross had been hired as the first-ever curator of video art. The exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is Co-curated with world renowned theater director Peter Sellars and David Ross, who is now Director of the Whitney Museum (and where the exhibition will travel next). I spoke with Bill Viola at the museum on the morning of the exhibition's opening. I found an artist who was deeply thoughtful, disarmingly warm and irresistibly passionate about his work.
Venice: Peter Sellars commented that in this retrospective, the individual works almost become another piece. Did that factor into your decisions as to which works you chose?
Bill Viola: Yeah. I mean when I did the Venice Biennale, the U.S. Pavilion, that was a real learning experience. Not only did I create the works specifically for that space and all together in the same period of time-they were all new-but I was really acutely aware of this pavilion as a kind of sculptural object in itself. And since a lot of my work is about erasing the exterior, I really began to realize that the building itself became, in my mind, a kind of giant sculptural object - like a cave which you see from the outside but it's all about what's going on inside. That was a learning experience-not only for that-but also to see what happens when works are so close together that you literally step from one right into the other, which I'd never done.
So that was the beginning. Peter really pushed me a lot to open the works up and to let them talk to each other. In fact, we called this exhibition the "Meta Piece" even in our early discussions several years ago, with David [Ross] and Peter and Kira [Perov] and myself. We knew that phenomenon would happen because of the nature of the work, but I was unprepared for exactly how it would happen. There are little gifts that are in this arrangement of works which you can't work out on paper before you install it. It just happens. So I've learned a lot. I've seen these old works that I know quite well, as individuals which, sort of like an ensemble cast, become more than what they are individually.
You mentioned that a lot of your work is about erasing the exterior. Can you expand on that concept a little?
BV: Well we live in a culture whose thought processes have been very affected by the optical revolution in image making since the Renaissance. Once optics are used as the basis for image making, you're in the domain of the exterior and surface, which is why about four hundred years after that fact, by the early twentieth century, form comes to the fore as one of the dominant ways to approach art. And so that creates a way of looking at the world that divides the world into exterior and interior. In some cases it would be quite accurate to say that a human being is just that-we have one foot in the physical world, in terms of our material body, and the other foot in the metaphysical world, in terms of our spiritual, psychological and emotional being. That's expressed in the two great streams of Western Philosophy - the approach through 'knowledge'-the epistemological, or the approach through 'being', [which is] ontological .
So you arrive in the twentieth century where vision is playing this huge role in culture and is becoming in fact the dominant language of the culture, and then you have this moving image. The key is when the images start moving, because before they move, they are the exterior of the world as the eye sees it. Once they move, they move from the area of epistemology-or knowledge-to 'being'. Because then they have behavior, they have a life, they have a beginning and an end and they have an existence in time that is filled with transformation and process. They're not static representations.
And the video camera is a medium ideally suited to an ontological approach ?
The video camera, which seems to be about looking at the external world, in fact is actually telling you more about the 'being' nature of the world than it is about the visual appearance of the world. So we are beginning to go beneath this surface and be much more aware- through people like Freud and Jung at the turn of the century-of our inner lives and this other world-this immaterial, non material world.
This exhibition elicited an overwhelming sense of immersion and engagement, as I walked from room to room, piece to piece.
That's really what my work is about, in the sense that when you come into these rooms there is no outside. When we are building these rooms, one of the things to really convince the museums about is that when they are constructing these walls, they're not building containers to hold the art, they're building the art. They are like sculptures that have to be rooms, in a way, or arenas of events in space. So where a wall is, if they get it wrong and move it over one foot, it's wrong. It's like taking a sculpture and lopping off an arm. So that's real important for them to get. When you enter that space, you are in this interior in the total sense of the word.
The first piece that you see - the first thing I saw, as I entered the exhibition, was myself-
And then you-
Because my face is there when the screen turns, and then you're there when the mirror turns. You are also in that piece when the mirror comes and the light from the projector, projects off that, you are projected on yourself. the walls become the projection screen and the images are literally playing out over you and the whole room.
These aspects of reflection, both literal and psychological, capture a sense of speed which seems profoundly indicative of our times. In many of the pieces I found this dichotomy: either images flashed by with a speed that was difficult to grasp, or they were quite still and my mind raced, again making them difficult to grasp. You seem to be directing people to slow down, To really look and reflect upon those fleeting moments and aspects of consciousness-and life-which often escape us.
Yes. I think it was very profound for me to live in Japan. I'd read a lot about Japanese culture but when you live there it's different and much deeper. Of any culture on earth, that I can think of, the Japanese really have refined and brought to a very sophisticated level of awareness and development, that notion of the fleeting nature of life.
I mean it's in Buddhism itself but the way the Japanese took it and interpreted it is just extraordinary. The whole image of the cherry blossom and its importance in Japan-it only exists for a few days and then it's gone. The poignancy of old classical poets in Japan who discuss that. The basis of the human condition is our temporal existence. Temporary and temporal existence on this earth. It is the source of all of our knowledge and aspirations to transcend ourselves, whether it be through sex, which is one way to get out of the body. The other way to get out of the body is through this, through your mind and spirit, through aspiring to reach this point, to deepen your knowledge and receive enlightenment in the quest, but in the western sense to know more. So that's what drives us, those two things, to get out of this limited shell and those moments, the beautiful thing about it is not to hold them. That's what Takko Wan Soho, the Japanese sword master said, if you're a swordsman, if you hold onto the moment, you're dead. Your mind has to just ride the wave, where ever that takes you. It's the holding that is so much a part of human nature and is the cause of all suffering. So in the age of recording, which is all about holding and grabbing, people forget that recording is actually a living thing. And you can see that when you look at your family photos receding in the past but they become perpetually new. They become new sources of information.
It is a notion of history that I share. That the present continually changes one's perception of the past, which means that the past continues to change as well.
Yes, exactly. There is a curious phenomenon too with photography. If you have grandma looking at photos of her honey moon with her grandchildren, grandma sees her honey moon, the same image, same photo. The kids see all these weird people with their funny cars, dressed in weird clothes. And so you have this single image and two completely different perceptions of that image, that's really kind of wonderful.
What were the seminal moments for you that awakened your interest in being an artist and then led to your interest in this medium as a vehicle?
I can't remember really. In the family mythology, in my home, the story that was told to me many times was that when I was three years old I was trying to draw a boat and couldn't draw it. I asked my mother to help and she took the paper and drew this boat that was very bad, so I grabbed the pencil and paper back from her and drew a boat that was a really beautiful little boat. She kept that picture and always encouraged me from that moment on. I was always the class artist in all the grades. I was the kid that painted the holiday things on the walls, I did scenery for the school play. And I was always doing that, so there was never a time when I wasn't really an artist, but the turning point of course was the late sixties, living through that incredible time when eastern knowledge was coming in full force into the society and there was a time of social and political change and awareness and the media revolution was just getting under way with the "portable-ization" of the technology. All of that kind of crystallized for me by going to school, studying advertising and painting. I was not good at either of those things and there was the new port-a-pack and all this new gear that had just come out and it was like there wasn't even a choice. And ironically-and I don't know why because most the people I knew were documentary makers-for me there wasn't a choice of what to do with it, it had to be art. It wasn't like I was going to make tapes on how to build geodesic domes or something-it had to art right from the beginning. I saw that, OK, I was screwing around with painting and wasn't doing too well, so let's do this. I also I didn't see this new thing as being anything exceptional- that one wouldn't presume to just continue making whatever you were doing before.
Was there a sense of community in working in this new medium, a number of artists that you could interact with?
I was very fortunate. When I was working with David Ross at Syracuse, where he was the video curator, I was the video tech guy who set up all the artist's shows, so without ever having gone to grad school I got an incredible experience in my last several years in college and then the year after when I stayed on to work at the museum. There was incredible apprenticeship experience with the leading video artists of the day. Nam June Paik, I helped him set up his show. Peter Campus , one of the great video artists in history-amazing installations, very profound. At the same time I had become aware of, and seen, the work of Bruce Nauman. I was really impressed with his retrospective at the Whitney. Michael Snow, the film maker, was really important for me. Dennis Oppenheim, really important artist. He was doing amazing installations. I mean you see some of his early video works-check those out-from the early to mid 70's, they are amazing. So all of that stuff, I was a young guy and actually working with a lot of these people and meeting them, which was great, they weren't just figures in books and magazines. I was setting up their pieces with them, a technically adept young guy-so it was the best I possibly could have asked for. I think those people I mentioned especially, were very important for me.
The language of this work is so immediately accessible, is there still a place for traditional media and how might that place have changed?
Well the painters are in a very privileged position in a way, because they are no longer at the center of the dominant informational media of the culture like they were 400 years ago. And that break as we know evolved over a long period of time, but really came to the fore with the split in France in the middle of the 19th Century and the development of the avante guard, which led into Modernism. By that time then, of course, painting was not conveying the news of the day, wasn't the vernacular anymore or the main source of information. By doing that then, it freed them up to be the keepers of the images in a way. So there is that distance-which people complain about now from a political standpoint-the separation of the general public, whatever the hell that means, and the art. That break that the painters did-of course going through people like Duchamps, who really took it on to even another level, more of an abstract conceptual level-created that distance which in fact is the source of the power of those images today. So that's a really important state, much like poets in a way. Poets used to be the troubadours, they used to go and give the news, like Dan Rather and Morely Safer. They could sing and rhyme words, there was this whole functional connection-that's why it rhymes, so you could remember stuff.
Then that sort of broke off, and of course there are no more court poets.That's also their power, that distance and separation. The lone voice speaking the truth. I really have a great deal of respect for that. It serves a very important function and it's fine. Personally, the only gripe I have is that I'm impatient with things that don't really express the kind of urgency of our life today. I mean, I think it's great to be entertained or to see nice looking pictures because there is a pleasure of the senses that needs to be addressed. The word aesthetic refers to perception of things by the senses. But that disconnection from knowledge-I personally don't have the patience for that-even though I can relate to someone who just wants to look at a nice picture or wants to paint one.
So that's an important role. I just happen to be involved in a media that at this particular moment has the truth factor in society, That's the sense that if it comes on CNN, it's real and true. We will learn in later generations that it was incredible that we thought that. The way that people thought that the Medieval picture of the Madonna with the gold sky was reality. For us it's going to change, there's no question, but for the moment that's it and artists who are adept at using these tools are given the possibility and potential to go out into the dominant informational system in the society. All my tapes have been broadcast on public TV. KCET is going to have tapes of this show in a couple of weeks, you can buy my videos in the bookstore. Those other areas of what I do, in addition to a museum exhibition, are all real important. So that's just what I've been able to do with this work. It has a different set of demands and a different set of responsibilities. I find it to be real exciting.
Is there a schism between you old guard video guys and younger artists who are beginning their art making with digital technology?
Oh yeah, the technology is totally new, video as we know it will cease to exist, the VCR, CAM Corder, is definitely a twentieth century instrument and is not going to be around much longer. There will always a way to record but magnetic tape certainly will go, there will probably be things we call cameras but they will be totally digitally based. But the purpose of the work won't change.
How do you feel about the term "video artist" ?
The formalist approach has really distorted our view of things because people get so hung up on the medium. Like the difference between oil and acrylic. I can understand all that stuff, but really, if you look at the image itself from the cave paintings right on through cinema to digital technology, there's a coherent line you can draw, that happens to pass through different media or happens to have been presented to us in different containers. But too much, in our culture especially I think, we talk about the container-this is film, this is video, this is painting. OK, there is a kind of zoological necessity in making distinctions, but on the other hand, hey, let's talk about what's in the cup here, man. That's what we're drinking. It has different qualities, sure, depending on the vessel you put it in and if its hot or cold. But it's still the thread of the image, that connects me to artists of all time and what makes video the secondary aspect of what I do.
Published in Venice Magazine