In Conversation with Bill Viola


whitehot magazine | December 2009, In Conversation with Bill Viola

Alissa Guzman in Conversation with Bill Viola

Bill Viola: Bodies of Light
James Cohan Gallery
533 West 26th St.
New York, NY 10001
23 October through 19 December, 2009

Bodies of Light, currently showing through the 19th of December 2009 at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea, is the gallery’s fifth exhibition from the American video artist Bill Viola. Spanning two decades of Viola’s work, this exhibition shows both his recent high definition, plasma screen videos, as well a new installation of an older black and white video. The gallery’s ambiance, dimly lit, hushed, and divided into individual rooms, reverently offers Viola’s videos projecting luminously outward.

Meeting with Bill the afternoon before the opening of Bodies of Light, we discussed the larger concepts and interests behind his long career.
Alissa Guzman: I have spent the past two weeks researching your career, and as I did so I became very aware of the fact that your body of work exceeds my own life-span.  

Bill Viola: Oh, that’s an interesting thought!

AG: Not in any negative sense, but I was looking for connections, interests you had or concerns, especially in your early writings that were from a time I don’t remember. One of the things that initially interested me was that your media, video, seems so time specific. I feel like each video you make is based in the time that it was made technically, and yet your themes I find incredibly timeless—life, death, consciousness, memory. Could you address the dichotomy between your materiality and your themes?  

BV: We are literally prisoners, or guests, in the stream of time. Ancient cultures described three great reservoirs of humanity – the Unborn, the Living, and the Dead, but only one of these domains is finite–our world of the living. This makes our life here on earth so precious. ¨These are the “timeless themes” in my work that you mentioned. However, as Buddha said, “All life is change,” so you can only be of your time. I just happened to have been born in 1951, and I was fortunate that, in the timeline of history, I came of age when television was just beginning – a barely functioning, black and white, low-resolution medium.

As a young boy I watched the first live television broadcast between Paris and New York, which had never been done before. Soon after, the 1964-65 World’s Fair opened and it was all about technology. I was 13-years-old, living in Queens, and I could walk down to the World’s Fair Expo from my house after school. I saw all these pavilions with exhibits of science and technology. It was all about moving forward into a new future. It gave my generation optimism. We felt like we could do anything. The world was changing, and we were riding the new wave. At the time, technology for me was a positive force – the dark side was to appear later….

I first saw a video camera in high school, and I never forgot it. The next year when I arrived at university I immediately started looking for a video class. On the very first day of the workshop I held the camera in my hands and turned it on. I saw an image of the room, and the people in it, live. Instinctively I knew that this was the future, my future, and that I would be doing it for the rest of my life.

AG: Did you feel when you were in art school that there was a material hierarchy, like using video was considered not a real way to make art?

BV: Completely. When I had my first show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the space they gave me was the gallery next to the toilets in the basement… the least desirable place. The senior curators had the painting and sculpture galleries upstairs – that was where the “real” art was. So video art was discriminated against from the very beginning.

AG: …like photography? 

BV: Yes, photography is a perfect example. It was already “sanctified” by the establishment when video appeared. These struggles gave us incredible strength and defiance. When someone is telling you they’re going to put you next to the toilets, it is empowering because that is where they first put Monet in the 19th century, in the Salon de Refusé. When you’re the refused ones it makes you more focused, more tenacious, and it makes you believe even more strongly in what you’re doing.

Also, there was no market for video art in the beginning, and this gave us a platform and the time to develop our craft for ourselves, outside of the commercial art market. I had my first commercial gallery show when I was 41-years-old, so I worked for almost seventeen years without gallery representation.

Read the rest of the interview at Whitehot Magazine:

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