Welcome to the official BILL VIOLA website

30Jun12

Welcome to the official BILL VIOLA website.


An article from the Guardian 19/ March/ 2002 by Mark Kidel

The last week in November of last year: Robbie Knott, Hollywood’s top flood-and-rain man, supplier of downpours and deluges to the film industry, is checking the last details of a complex system of tanks and pumps from which thousands of gallons of water will soon burst forth. The film set that is about to be inundated is as simple as they come: a neo-classical house front, built on the parking lot of Long Beach airport. There are over 200 extras, of all ages and races. They file past the mocked-up house, in seemingly endless succession. Many of them carry luggage or cherished possessions, as if anticipating disaster.

Assistants call out instructions. The pace quickens. As a siren blasts, the atmosphere becomes very tense, and the pumps start up noisily. The walking extras are now all scrambling in a panic. As the tension builds to near-breaking point, torrents of water start to cascade out of the front door of the house, throwing limp extras and furniture out at terrifying speed. Further floods of water pour out of the house’s four windows. The sound is deafening.

A few feet away, in a small marquee, the director watches the take on a monitor. For Bill Viola, the video artist behind this very striking artificial deluge, this is something of a first, for he has never before harnessed such complex and expensive means.

The shooting of The Deluge is just one part of the elaborate process behind Viola’s new piece, Going Forth By Day. This five-panel installation showing at Berlin‘s Deutsche Guggenheim is Viola’s largest work so far.

Although the piece was conceived over a year ago, as an American work that encourages people to reflect on death and its aftermath, Going Forth By Day is very timely. But it also connects with Viola’s Nantes Triptych at Tate Modern, his Five Angels for the Millennium, and recurring themes in his work, expressed in stirring images of birth, death and resurrection. Water looms in much of his art; nearly drowning as a child was an experience that changed his life.

Going Forth By Day consists of five image sequences, each of around 35 minutes. They are projected concurrently on the walls of the gallery in a continuous loop. All except one of the sequences were shot on digital video. The large images are projected straight onto the white walls. One of them, The Path, which shows a steady stream of people moving along a path in a sunlit Californian forest, is just under 10 metres long and only a couple of metres high. The ultra-cinemascope picture ratio and feel of the scene evoke Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest, which hangs in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Viola wanted to reproduce something of the feel of Italian Renaissance mural painting. Among his reference points was Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, one of the buildings in which Viola feels the combination of two-dimensional image and architectural space have been most successfully fused. Just as the Scrovegni Chapel retells a story – in this case the life of Christ – Viola’s five-panel installation has elements of narrative, although they are not assembled in a linear sequence, and clearly rely on a sense of recurrence over time rather than developing to a conclusion.

Giotto is also present in The Voyage, a panel depicting the cutaway interior of a house in which an old man is dying, with his son and daughter-in-law at his bedside. The house sits on a hill overlooking a serene lake. At the water’s edge, the old man’s possessions are being loaded on to a boat. His wife, who has died before him, waits for her husband by the boat. Towards the end of the sequence, the two of them sail away across the still waters. Simultaneously, a few feet away, another small drama very slowly unfurls: a rescue team clears up, exhausted, after a flash flood in the desert. A woman waits anxiously by a dark pool of water, mourning drowned family and friends. Just as the dead husband and wife’s boat moves across the lake, and the mother and rescue workers have fallen asleep, a male figure rises miraculously from the pool. The image is daring and yet somehow escapes the kitsch of so much religious iconography, not least because of the way it resonates with the other images in the installation.

As Viola admits, the references here are strongly Christian, but he is quick to point out that “Christians don’t own the resurrection, the crucifixion, the deposition, the visitation. These are elements of human life that have been utilised by all great traditions.” Viola believes that while most of the outward forms of religious practice have been discarded in the west, the images that move people remain the same: “The beauty of it is that you can use an image of a man floating out of the water or bursting in flames, and it stirs. It’s hard-wired into the system – into the operating system.”

Viola believes that artists must re-engage with the stuff of metaphysics and transcendence: “There is now a potential for reawakening, it is so great in terms of art. You have to awaken yourself first, it is the reason why you make work.” He has studied the writings of Rumi, St John of the Cross and the Zen masters, and awakening – or being in the moment, always aware of the presence of death and rebirth at every in stant – is central to all these threads of mysticism.

But Viola is in no way a New Age proselytiser: as his close friend the opera director Peter Sellars pointed out at the time of the installation’s opening in Berlin: “Bill Viola uses images that come from a number of sacred traditions, but he filters all of it through his personal experience. He’s actually showing the heart of his own spiritual struggle, never platitudes.” Sellars believes Viola to be one of the most important artists of our time, and came to Berlin to support his friend in the run-up to the installation. “We recognise in his work the difficult, the clumsy, the frustrating, the painful, that sense of futility, that you’re getting nowhere,” says Sellars, “and then Bill makes some beautiful structure that makes you realise that just when you thought you were getting nowhere, it’s actually the first time you’re making any progress!”

The new piece, as Viola is the first to admit, is partly inspired by events in his own life – particularly his father’s death a few years ago, as well as his own reckoning with mortality. We are spared any me-generation navel-gazing or fashionable self-revelation, as the work transcends the merely personal. Viola’s work speaks to the heart, but he never preaches. “Viola is not coming to you with an answer,” says Sellars. “He is coming to you with the fact that what is holding all of this together is what we don’t know – not what we do know. What we share is exactly the point where we have to be silent, not where we start to talk.”

· Bill Viola, Going Forth By Day is at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin (0049 30 20 20 93 0), until May 5 2002

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