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His Camera Never Blinks

Video art pioneer Bill Viola is still a big-picture guy, fearlessly tackling matters of love, mortality and faith.

October 26, 1997|Hunter Drohojowska Philp | Hunter Drohojowska Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

A pioneer of video art, Bill Viola, 46, found his way to the medium by playing in a rock band in the late 1960s. Although he was proficient in painting and drawing, his search for an alternative art form led him to courses in electronic music and video at Syracuse University. And the rest is history. Viola, a 15-year resident of Long Beach, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1989, and in 1995 he became the first video artist to represent the U.S. at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Next year he will be a Getty scholar.

His installations are frankly spiritual in intent, incorporating large-screen video projections that have greatly influenced the form internationally. Next Sunday will be the premiere, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, of a major retrospective of Viola's work organized by David Ross, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show was co-curated by theater and opera director Peter Sellars.

Viola spoke in the midst of the installation of the exhibition, which he designed in all its detail.

Question: This is the largest retrospective ever organized for a video artist. What do you think that says about the place of video as a medium in the art world today?

Answer: When I was giving a workshop in an art school, a student said, "Oh, yeah, video, that's my dad's medium." When I started doing this stuff in 1972, the medium was largely unknown. Today, a large projected image on a wall in a room is commonplace. The technology is so much a part of our world, it has become what artist John Baldessari said 25 years ago, "Video is like a pencil." We've reached a healthy point where we can discuss the art and not the machines that make it possible. It is an established art form.

Q: What special challenge does that leave for you as a video artist?

A: When I started, video was very much part of the counterculture as a way to circumvent the dominance of television in terms of corporate and political structures and the control of information. The new portable video machines meant that an individual could have access to the same technology as professional broadcasters, and they could make their own programs. That was the fuel in the fire surrounding new media and alternative culture when I was starting out.

My own path has been not to go into the political dimension in terms of activist work but to go within, to the direction of the individual and to the inner self. Any liberation that happens, whether it's political, personal or cultural, has to begin with the tiny spark that happens in each and every one of us. That's the key. The content of the news does not interest me in terms of my own work. But the relationship between the individual and society interests me a lot. Which is the ultimate political aspect of human life.

Q: It seems that video would be a medium that would lend itself to looking at the external world. But you have spent most of your career revealing your internal world.

A: These tools give us really potent metaphors for the inner life. Images in the electronic domain have a life. They are moving, changing, transforming. The painter's dream of bringing the images to life goes back in history to the origin of painting itself.

The Sufis placed imagery as the intermediate zone between God and man. You reach the divine through images; the divine reaches you through images. And it all plays out through the individual. So television for me has one foot in the material world and another foot in the metaphysical world, and that is its power.

In the Middle Ages, they painted the sky gold in their paintings. Today we paint it blue and we think that's real. But if you went back to the Middle Ages and showed someone a picture of a blue sky and a gold sky, they would say the gold sky is real. They believed that the divine effused through every aspect of the world so the gold sky was a closer representation of the reality of the world. Today, cameras show us the blue sky because they are based on optics. Human beings are not based on optics. We are much more than light falling on the retina. To say that video is about the outside world is like saying that human life is about the light falling on your retina.

Q: This seems to be a good place to ask you about conveying a not-so-covert spiritual message in your work. What was the incident that made you feel confident this was a direction you thought you could take in making your art?

A: The key word you used was "confidence." I believe the aspiration to transcend oneself is a basic human need. The possibility of union with God is a driving force we all have, whether we subscribe to any religion or not. I grew up in a time when it was not cool to do that stuff in art. The issues in art were theoretically based, influenced by people like Marcel Duchamp. I didn't feel I could talk about things that really mattered to me until the mid-'80s.

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