8 Surprising Facts About Video Artist Bill Viola: Sculptor of Time

Contemporary video artist Bill Viola transforms imagery into experiences from beautiful to sublime. With the power of the natural elements and his camera, he delves into life's biggest questions.

Sep 18, 2020By Carolina Sanmiguel, BA Art Education, MA Art History & Theory
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Portrait of Bill Viola with Martyrs, 2014, via Universes Art


During his four decades of artistic career, Bill Viola has been internationally acclaimed as an Old Master of new media, a ‘high-tech Caravaggio’ or  ‘Rembrandt of the video age.’ His sophisticated use of audiovisual technologies and evocative imagery redefines religious art, leaving most viewers in a state of transfixion. His installations explore fundamental ideas of the human condition such as life, death, time, space, and individual consciousness. Frame by frame, Viola creates a new visual language for existential introspection. 


Bill Viola: A Contemporary Video Artist And Pioneer

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The Raft by Bill Viola, 2004, via Borusan Contemporary Art Museum, Istanbul


Bill Viola was born in 1951 in Queens, New York. While growing up, he found his internal world much more fascinating than the external reality. His mother shared and fostered his artistic interests and taught him how to draw from an early age, while his father motivated him to attend a university and pursue a more conventional education. 


In 1973 he received his BFA in Experimental Studios from Syracuse University, whose art program was one of the most innovative and experimental in new media at the time in the United States. He switched majors from painting to this new media aiming to master the more dynamic cutting-edge technologies of electronic music and video. This opportunity allowed Viola to discover video as his artistic medium of choice that would later characterize all of his artworks. 


Bill Viola’s passion for art coincided with the emergence of many new technologies that ultimately profiled him as a pioneer of video art. His technical prowess, paired with his philosophical approach and visual aesthetics made him an instrumental figure in the establishment of video as a main form of contemporary art


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With his artistic practice and experience, Viola has paved the road for video art and ultimately expanded its scope in terms of content, technology and historical reach on a global level. Here are 8 surprising facts about the sculptor of time.


8. His First Art Show Was In A Classroom

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Bill Viola as a child, via Louisianna Channel, Humlebaek


Viola often mentions that he was very introverted: ‘I was a very shy child. The world in my mind, heart and body was more real than the immediate world around me.’ As in the case of many, he also found art as a creative outlet that allowed him to express himself, gain encouragement, and experience validation. 


Once, he made a finger painting of a tornado that impressed his kindergarten teacher so much, that in exchange, Mrs. Fell praised him by showing the piece to the entire class and displayed little Bill’s artwork on the wall for everyone to see. Viola, who at the time reacted by hiding out of embarrassment under a desk, reflects now on this childhood memory as ‘his very first public exhibition.’ 


Mrs. Fell’s act of encouragement impacted him greatly, empowering him to break out of the shell, and from that point on, to take pride in his artistic talents.  


7. Bill Viola Started As A Janitor

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Bank Image Bank by Bill Viola, 1974, via IMDb (left); with Bill Viola with Bank Image Bank, 1974, via IMDb (right)


It may come as a surprise, but in reality, the experience is related to one of his first jobs as a university student. Enrolled in Syracuse, Viola was among the first generations of American artists to receive academic training in the technological advances of photography, video, sound, and other visual arts. 


He joined a student-led video movement on the experimental use of portable video cameras. In the summer of 1972, he spent countless hours installing radio frequency cables for Syracuse’s first cable-TV system (now Citrus-TV). 


That training experience led him to work as a janitor in Watson Hall, which was the center of the cable system. ‘They gave me the keys to the building. After cleaning up the mess from the beer parties, I’d stay there all night, alone in this incredible state-of-the-art color video studio. That’s where I became proficient.’ 


The job granted Viola access to countless all-nighters in the studio, and he seized the moment as his opportunity to master the media that would define his future career as a contemporary video artist.

6. A Near-Death Experience Strongly Influenced His Art

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Portrait of Bill Viola in his childhood, via Louisianna Channel, Humlebaek (top); with Ascension by Bill Viola, 2000, via Wadsworth Museum, Hartford (bottom)


Viola’s interest in art became intensified after a near-death experience as a child. While vacationing with his family near a lake, he approached the body of water following his cousins. Viola couldn’t swim and sank right to the bottom of the lake, where he experienced ‘the most beautiful world’ he’s ever seen: ‘I see it constantly in my mind’s eye. I felt that was the real world. I was shown that there’s more than just the surface of life. The real thing is under the surface,’ recalls Viola after that frozen-in-time memory. 


Viola interprets memory as a collection of biological, spiritual, and emotional ‘data’ existent in every human being. His continuous work with the element of water is intrinsically connected to the lake experience. A recurring memory of his first encounter with the world under an entirely different perspective. It was after this accident, that Viola came to realize the powerful role that images played in his life. 


The contemporary artist finds a relationship between his favorite natural element and video, understanding the latter as a kind of ‘electronic water’ that is always flowing with electrons. The link becomes more apparent when we consider video only as the technical media Viola utilizes to carry his visuals, but to a conceptual level, it is the element of water that could be truly considered as the ‘emotional media’ that carries the pathos of his message.

5. Bill Viola Found His Renaissance In Florence

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Bill Viola during his stay in Florence as Technical Director of art/tape/22, 1974-76, via Palazzo Strozzi, Florence


Seeking new inspiration, Viola moved to Florence, Italy, in 1974 after graduation. For 18 months, he worked as Technical Director at the production area of one of the very first art video studios in Europe called art/tapes/22. There he met other creative forces such as Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, Nam June Paik, and Bruce Nauman


He was only 23, but it was during this era when he obtained inspiration for multiple architectonic video installations that he would later create. He also designed many sketches and studies for video pieces and sonorous sculptures that ultimately influenced some of his most famous artworks.

4. He Married His Creative Partner

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Bill Viola and Kira Perov, via Sedition Art


He is married to Kira Perov, his artistic collaborator and Executive Director of Viola’s studio. Her influence has been paramount in the development of Viola’s work. 


Perov was the Director of Cultural Arts at La Trobe University in Australia, where she had invited Viola to present his work in 1977. They started a romantic relationship that culminated in two children and a successful life-long personal and professional collaboration.

3. He Draws From The Old Masters

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La Visitazione by Jacopo Pontormo, 1528-30, via The Church of San Michele Arcangelo Carmigano (left); with The Greeting by Bill Viola, 1995, via Palazzo Strozzi, Florence (right)


The exposure to Renaissance masterpieces and architecture in Florence inspired Viola to reimagine this historical period with the technical advances of his time. He created sculptural visions of well-known religious imagery by manipulating time and space. 


These images resonate in the collective memory of many as a result of Viola’s strategic approach to the pictorial tradition. The contemporary video artist intensely studied the works of some of the Great Masters of the Medieval and Renaissance periods to configure his slow-motion electronic compositions.


By appealing to recognizable historical forms, Viola creates powerful and intimate links with his audiences. He provides them with images that are familiar yet, disconcerting.


His subjects evoke the paintings and sculptures from the greatest Renaissance masterpieces, but they do not look like them. They contrast from the traditional representation of iconology in art history and stand before us in full movement and wearing contemporary attire.


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Emergence by Bill Viola, 2002, via The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


An example of this is Emergence, inspired by Masolino da Panicale’s Pietà from 1424. This Pietà pictorially narrates Christ’s resurrection flanked by Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. In Emergence, Viola shows a nude and ashy Christ that emerges from a marble tomb with overflowing water. A symbol of the dualistic meanings of death and birth.


However, Bill Viola’s image is one of redoubled symbolism, where the burial of Christ belongs to an eternal triad between birth, death, and resurrection. The energy of the forms that we perceive in Emergence can also be identified in the Pietà de Bandoni by Michelangelo Buonarroti.


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Detail of Pietà (Christ The Man of Sorrows) by Masolino da Panicale, 1424, in Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Andrea, via Palazzo Strozzi, Florence (left); with The Deposition (Pietà Bandini) by Michelangelo Buonarroti, 1547-55, via Museo dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence (right)


In 2017, the artist returned for an Electronic Renaissance exhibition of his video works at The Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi


To create a unique experience, Bill Viola imagined a dynamic museography display based on the architecture of the Palazzo. The result was an unprecedented visual journey for all visitors, who got to admire the dialogue between Renaissance masterpieces from the Italian Masters alongside Viola’s electronically charged imagery.


‘I am happy to repay my debt to the great city of Florence,’ claimed Viola about the exhibition. His work attempts to remind us how to look at Renaissance art through the technological lenses of our contemporary time.

2. He Is Inspired By Religion, Martyrdom, And Spirituality

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Martyrs by Bill Viola, 2014, via e-flux


Bill Viola is often inspired by the life of saints and mystical literature. In 2014, his piece Martyrs constituted the first direct collaboration between St. Paul’s Cathedral and Tate Modern, and the first permanent video installation in a cathedral in Britain. 


A collaboration of this magnitude required Viola to reflect on the theme of martyrdom. He went back to the Greek word for martyr and found ‘witness.’ The term spoke to him about contemplation of the human condition and the idea of the suffering of the body as the ultimate spiritual sacrifice.


Martyrslocation may be inside a catholic church, but it manages to escape institutionalized doctrines and move beyond monotheistic beliefs. Viola’s Martyrs generate a sublime and spiritual experience for most publics -secular and religious- by appealing to the universal representation of the natural elements. 


These ‘contemporary martyrs’ aim to communicate visions that emerge from deep within the human experience and reach beyond the time and culture in which they originated.


Viola, who is deeply rooted in Buddhist practices, has said that his pieces are relevant to everyone if considered through the lens of archetypal energies such as fire, water, earth, and air. These can resonate with multiple artistic representations, icons, and deities from many diverse cultures. 

1. The Four Natural Elements Are On Bill Viola’s Side: The Crossing

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The Crossing by Bill Viola, 1996, via SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah


Bill Viola’s works can also be interpreted through his interest in the four natural elements. Oftentimes, his pieces have been regarded as sublime due to the physical extremes he portrays. 


But what is the sublime? Immanuel Kant once said: ‘Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt.’ 


The overall effect of Viola’s works concentrates our attention on extreme experiences we cannot live but only attempt to imagine. He transforms imagery from the calm and subtle observation of the beautiful to the dramatic and overwhelming experience of the sublime


We can see this in one of his most famous pieces, The Crossing, a two-sided projection where a man strides forward from a distance. Upon nearing the audience in one of the suspended screens, he stops and becomes consumed by an enraging fire. 


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The Crossing by Bill Viola, 1996, via The Guggenheim Museums, New York


Simultaneously, on the other screen, he becomes engulfed in a torrent of water. After he becomes one with the elements, the cascade of water stops, the blazing flames extinguish. The man has disappeared into the cosmos.


The contemporary artist appeals to the elements as the essence of all things that belong and coexist as part of the same cosmos. By surrounding us with potent visuals and sound, we ‘witness’ the immersion in the elements of the man in The Crossing. But we also become one with him to live that phenomenological experience and complete the total artwork.


Through his art full of stillness and spiritual connotations, Viola’s greatest mystery remains to be time itself. Frame by frame, his compelling images look at us right in the eye. Changing in time and with time. His videos continue to confront even the most secular viewers with life’s biggest questions. Why are we born? Why do we die? What is life, if not time?

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By Carolina SanmiguelBA Art Education, MA Art History & TheoryBased in Barcelona, Carolina is an American contributing writer who focuses on current trends in global art. She explores the influence of Classical Antiquity on the contemporary art scene while looking at the impact of historic aesthetic models on visual culture. She holds a B.A. in Art Education from The University of Texas and an M.A. in Art History and Theory from The University of Barcelona. Carolina has international experience in art education, curriculum design, and varied museum roles in places like the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona).