Bill Viola.

This is a piece about Bill Viola written as a response to the Moodle directive to uncover an artist one isn't directly familiar with and to explore thoughts that looking at their work may give rise to. I had heard of all of the artists on the list given but I wasn't necessarily familiar with their work in detail. Bill Viola was one that I came across whose work I had heard of but had never looked in depth at and so for this area of the module I thought I would explore some of the themes his work gave rise to and how that echoed things that I felt were relevant to my own work and purposes.

Viola's recurrent theme of water and the human presence or non presence.

From a literary perspective I am interested in the Philosophy of Samuel Beckett and the recurrent themes he addresses in his work. I felt that Bill Viola was working within similar areas that Beckett did and presenting those ideas using visual metaphors rather as Beckett had done with words. One might say that Beckett's themes were limited and that he reframed the eternal notion of existential emptiness over and over again. This suited his ideas of man going on, having no other alternative. Beckett spoke of a world where God was absent and man existed in a void. Bill Viola deals with similar themes but in a different way not just in terms of expression but rather also in terms of the sense Viola doesn't present an existential ideology. He is less concerned with the absence or not of a God, a redeemer or saviour but is instead concerned with the fragile membrane between existing and not existing. He deals with mortality itself not as us travelling between one empty place to another but rather as concepts of time, space and dimension. Viola does not see us as hopeless but he certainly presents us as part of something, perhaps overwhelmed by it, but his work is not about a futile drowning more about the nature of us being human and able to experience. What we experience is more than we can understand but it doesn't deprive us of our hope or humanity despite the difficulty we have in grasping transcendental ideas of being and it's meaning. Viola to me seems concerned with the gateway between one state and another and what it is we might cross and how all of our emotional self is held within an invisible world that we carry inside the very visible body.

Triptych presentation device representing recognised religious iconography

Bill Viola's work often emphasises the veil. The idea of breaking through from one surface, state of existence, to another and how we deal with the idea of death and its ever present reality. He uses water often in highly sophisticated ways, relying on technology to deliver an experience to the viewer that seeks to bring them close to sensations of their own passage from one realm to another. Like Beckett he is interested in transience, temporality and the universal themes of birth and death. Unlike Beckett however he also is concerned with the wider roles of the individual in society and the loss of the individual amongst the chaotic steam of data noise. One might say his use of water in many of his projects could represent the individual being overwhelmed in a cascade or flood of environmental chaos. In other installation pieces however he uses water as illustrative of a figurative veil between dimensions.

His work is directly humanistic whilst also dealing with spiritual quasi religious themes. He takes great historical religious paintings and the power and impact they would have had upon their audiences and uses that sense of scale and arrangement in many of his video installation works. In doing this Bill Viola plugs into a collective unconscious familiar with art symbols and he draws upon these as a means of adding power and dimension to his own work. Western culture has 2000+ years of religious art and history and by framing his work either as direct biblical reproductions or more in recent years in spaces such as cathedrals or large industrial cathedral like structures he is drawing upon the religious motifs and symbols of our cultures to intensify his message. He also reproduces religious presentation such as devices like the Triptych for his video installations echoing again religious iconography. God may indeed by dead as Nietzsche wrote but for Viola our desire to experience the transcendental and the beyond is very much alive. I didn't in this discussion want to investigate whether Bill Viola was indeed religious or was making religious art! as for me I didn't feel this was the point. His work is seen by everyone, all denominations and as such to restrict interpretation of his work to a purely Christian perspective would diminish the totality of what he explores in his work or at least what it may communicate.

Being and not being. The transient fragile veil between life and death.

Painting and in particular religious works were messengers that we cannot view with the same reverence and awe that those who viewed them in the 16th & 17th centuries and earlier did. We can't feel their direct religious power as western cultures are no longer driven by the same intense devotion to a spiritual being that these paintings communicated to. Viola however can interact directly with the genesis of those experiences hardwired into our species DNA and translate the unwritten subconscious association of grandeur and wonder with religious art into his own work and by using similar scales and methods that religious art exploited he can in the 21st century deliver an epic experience that fully utilises technology. In doing this Viola derives a new form of seeing that relates back to our ideas of traditional painting.

I feel his attachment to paintings history and his exploration of high end technology are fascinating juxtapositions and one that he delivers with the skill of a craftsman. His work is technologically innovative using some of the most sophisticated video production techniques and equipment available. I think the scale of his art, its complexity and audience appetite to engage with it highlights an interesting area where technical teams are now involved in the creation of work much in the same way Damien Hirst employs teams to produce his work. This raises questions of the visual artist as director, a person who oversees their ideas rather than necessarily a sole creator. This would seem perhaps a response to the information age and the collaborative essence of new technologies. Where art may find itself in different future über connected cultures is a an area that interests me and Bill Viola would seem part of that evolving process.

Water as metaphor for the gap between dimensions. Water as doorway between different realms.

Viola's art for me is finely pared back lacking ornamental flurry or edges. He communicates time as negative space in much the same way minimalism made the absence of something beyond the present object as pertinent if not more so than the object itself. He uses slow motion to create gaps in our visual perception of time so that we are subliminally conscious of this fracturing of a surface we occupy. He uses digital video as directors like Terence Malick would when they are dealing with prolonged narrative. Malick strives to deal with time through the use of symbolic interventions during his films. Water is often used as a means of expressing memory or passage. Malick also uses sound and in particular the sound of wind and moving grass to suggest time and transcendental thought. Film directors such as Andre Tarkovsky were masters of using film as vehicles for exploring the terrain of time, so Bill Viola doesn't come to the art world free from our appreciation of great film directors who could also explore the minutiae of time and space and the fragile elements of our being and not being throughout long narrative works. Viola as an artist isn't exploring the architecture of story through prolonged narrative but employing symbolism in more immediate ways necessitated by the framework of his chosen artistic medium.

Bill Viola therefore heads a new wave of sophisticated installation technological art certainly at least in terms of the art public knowing who he is. He does so however not by disposing of the metaphors of the past and the history that has taken art to this point but by integrating them within the core of his presentation and subject matter. He has the ability to make the technology invisible although we are watching highly choreographed pieces of work. Perhaps this mirrors the work of the great painters who took us beyond the medium to the subject matter. There is of course interest in technique and one wonders often with Bill Viola's work how he did it but I think he is skilled enough to make the content our overriding concern

There are also negatives of course. Samuel Beckett was perhaps the greatest writer of the 20th century yet his work suffered for me from the frequent use of similar themes rearranged. One might say this of Shakespeare too and many great artists. It can however make for a certain sense of predictability and dilute for us aspects of a message as we approach the work aware of the underlying themes once becoming familiar with that artists voice. This seems of particular concern in BIll VIola's pieces as there is little variation across a period of perhaps 15 years in terms of how one visually addresses his work and the methodologies he uses. The scale of the work can also become expected and by that one may disengage from a true sense of awe that the artwork seeks to engender. Perhaps it is unfair to blame the artist for human nature and our quest for the new and the quick way we assimilate things into the culture so their familiarity then leads to a sense of boredom in the viewer. For me I feel BIll Viola has a conservative sensibility which often cleverly meets the expectations of galleries and the art critic and he produces work of a type that gives intellectuals anxious for things to intellectualise about something to say. Maybe Bill Viola is deeply part of the art myth which was a topic eloquently covered (not about Viola himself) in Matthew Collings book 'This is Modern Art' but I don't suspect that would be the fault of the artist.

I personally chose BIll Viola to write about because his work exists in a place that appeals to me. It investigates technology and has a forward perspective at least in terms of where artistic expression can evolve to. VIdeo installation and the extensive use of specific rigorous technology to create emotional responses is an area that interests me personally. I am most engaged by artists that are exploring technology and how it can be used to communicate with the soul whilst it is commonly perceived as something that is itself soulless and harmful to our cultural well being. The idea technology can enrich our lives beyond functional purpose and entertainment is one that has great meaning to me and artists like Bill Viola seem to be discussing a similar meaning for technology within their work.

 

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