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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

When you are an artist, you have to have the ability to let go and jump in when it is not clear whether there are rocks under the surface. If you don't do that, you never get anywhere. I just started practicing what I really believed in. I became more interested in the ideas themselves and less interested in my status in the art world. It's about the work, not the reception of the work. Then everything changed.

Q: Was the first piece to reflect that change "Room for St. John of the Cross," in which the ecstatic poetry of a saint is recited in a small room?

A: I think so. I remember thinking about that title because it seemed politically incorrect to mention a saint. But St. John as a human being went through this incredible experience of being confined to a cell and writing ecstatic poetry. It's a parallel with what any great artist goes through. I remember thinking, "This work was inspired by this man's poetry, and I am going to devote this room to him." That was an important step.

Q: What was the next important step?

A: My wife, Kira [Perov, a photographer], had our first child in 1988. That was a major transformative experience. The advent of family, which preceded the death of my mother in '91 and the birth of our second child the same year, all of a sudden these things I'd been thinking about and reading about became evidenced in an amazing way. The ultimate act of creativity is the creation of life. Experiencing that directly was very profound. There is a whole grouping of pieces from the late '80s that have to do with children, family and mortality in a direct way.

Q: You have expressed frustration that the so-called big themes of love, death, mortality or faith are rarely addressed in contemporary art today. Why do you think that is so?

A: One of the great functions of art throughout history has not been to deconstruct culture but to show an individual a way to be in the world, to articulate things that are not being articulated by other structures in the culture. Now we reach the 20th century, where the content of works being created has been influenced by this thing called critical discourse which has to do with the accumulation of decades of analysis of artworks by people who don't make art themselves. There's a whole institution created around the nature and practice of making art. But that is a mode of analyzing art, not practicing art.

In nontraditional times, such as these, you have art that has to do with form and structure, but not content, because you are questioning the whole thing, whether it is the structure of language or how cultural codes are created. The only traditional art form we have today is cinema. You don't need a wall label to go to the movies. Everybody knows, going back to Aristotle, what the dramatic structure is. We are not at that point in the visual arts today. Video is now the vernacular, and over the years I became aware that I could focus on content, the great themes of birth, death, mortality. And the structure, or form, is familiar. This work is more familiar to most people than a gallery filled with paintings. It's a dark room with images and sounds. That is the common language of today. We are broadcasting two programs on KCET during the course of the show. So there is a real potential to make work that goes out to the public in the common language of today. Painting gets its power by not being in the common language of today.

Q: At the same time, you have been very careful to avoid structures that people can relate to as narrative.

A: The Village Voice film critic Jim Hoberman said that my work is neither avant-garde nor mainstream. [Laughs] I have been interested in those aspects of life which can't be codified into a nice, neat narrative movie. So I guess I'm straddling both fences.

Q: When you started, you were a pioneer. Now every graduate student seems to make video art. What is the future of video art?

A: It's wonderful to see the proliferation of video in the museums. But technologically, video art's days are numbered. Everything is moving to pure digital form. By the time I get to be an old man, I'm sure I'll be using some all-digital format. Young people today are crazy if they don't get involved with computers in terms of image making. That's the Portapak of the '90s.

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