In this 28 minute interview, Bill Viola, the well-known video artist, talks about his practice and life.
It’s wholly appropriate to have a artist in this medium explain himself through the same medium, video. In fact, he found out the reason for one of his key motifs, water, through another interview, some time ago, when he told of an almost-forgotten near-drowning incident when he was 6, where he saw a wonderful world and light at the bottom of the water, felt drawn towards it – and only lived because of his uncle rescuing his body. At which the interviewer commented that that was probably why water occurred so often in his work – which startled Bill, but made sense to him, “Of course!”
In this interview, he explains that, for him, video is like “an electronic water”, as it flows – the electrons flow in circuits.
“And of course, then the brain and your body becomes also connected with electricity. We’re speaking now and I’m gesturing with my hands, because the electric waves that are in my body, coming from the pumping of my heart and stuff are allowing me to move them. ‘Cos it’s all flowing…. and the synapses in our brains are firing.”
When he first saw an early video camera – brought into school just before he left for college – the light in it seemed like the light in the water which he’d seen and felt drawn towards, when he nearly drowned – “the light had come back to me” It was profoundly moving, when the camera was switched off, he was nearly shaking. When he got to college, he immediately searched for and signed up for a videomaking workshop.
Through observation, he noticed how droplets of rain on his glasses each were like a lens, reflecting what was going on around him – and from this, created the piece “He weeps for you” in which ‘tears’ or droplets of water are slowly released, in deep close-up.
Throughout college, he privately read writings by mystics, particularly finding himself absorbed and moved by the poetry of St John of the Cross – making a piece on this later, he hesitated to name it with religious terms (expecting this would be ridiculed by art critics), but finally decided to call it what it was: “Room for St John of the Cross”. That marked a “turning point” in his naming his pieces exactly what they meant to him. The response? “Man, some of the critics just went crazy – you know, here I was, like, a contemporary artist, you know, and I’m making a piece about a Catholic saint – in the Middle Ages!” “That was the moment I took my stand; I said I’m going to say what it really is, what it means for me.”
The dying of his mother – unexpectedly, after 3 months in a coma – was profound as he was present and he describes it as beautiful, deeply sad and mysterious. When she had taken her last breath, he looked at the body on the bed and felt it was not his mother, but like a pile of laundry. After that, he broke the habit of a lifetime and brought his family videos into his workspace, realising that the everyday things of being with family have to be as much part of life as making famous art. In fact, right after his mother’s death, he took 3 months off work, despite a pressing deadline from funders – and every morning, sat replaying the footage of his mother, “like a prayer”. She was not going to take a breath again, but in the video, he could see her and almost be with her.
Later, after his father’s death, he made a series of works on the theme of “Passions” – grieving, crying themes.
This is a good video interview, it feels leisurely, not rushed, and very personal. We hear about his early works and which works were particularly important to him (although of course all were absorbing) – which pieces carried an importance for more than one work, but for years.
A really good starting point for finding out about Bill Viola’s life and work, from the start.