Artist Bill Viola has a show of work from two decades titled Bodies of Light, at James Cohan Gallery, through Dec 19. He sat down to talk about his work last week.
You had a residency at WNET a long time ago?
The first time I did something at WNET was in 1976; I did a piece called Four Songs that had to do with the passage of time, death, resurrection, but in a slightly different way than I deal with those topics now. It was broadcast on television. The first time my work was seen by large numbers of people, it was not in a museum, it was on NET, then it got syndicated and went to other public TV stations. I was involved with the TV Lab from around ’75 thru maybe ’81. That’s how I learned how to edit with high end professional equipment.
So many people have large format HD screens at home now… it’s a readymade format for your work.
I totally agree. The advent of flat screens have reconnected video to the art forms that since the beginning of video I’ve felt it was connected to. The flat screen confirmed all that, and the connection between the moving image and painting. That’s what plasma screens have allowed. And people like Jim and Jane Cohan (of James Cohan Gallery) get artists’ work on a wall in a portable format, which is what the original notion of painting was—frescoes, or cave paintings. People in the late middle ages were able to travel much farther than ever before, and they wanted to take their little icons with them. So artists painted icons, and the paintings started to grow, and eventually it eclipsed fresco.
TV isn’t encouraging, covering this kind of work, like the TV Lab—there’s nothing like that that could serve as a vehicle to get your work to a larger public.
The internet has become the distribution system. What’s extraordinary about the TV Lab—it was a creative space with no strings attached, not for television producers, not even cinema directors—but for visual artists to explore this then-new medium of television. So it was literally a lab and a workshop, and a lot of things were made there that never saw the light of day, as in many artists’ studios. Artists don’t show all those paintings they’re doing behind closed doors. Some of them even burn them or throw them in the garbage. So it had that creative unknown connected with it. It was kind of this wide open creativity, that is ironically, in the age of the internet, limited.
But it’s not limited by big technology; it’s limited by the person who’s maybe seen too many movies as a kid, who presumes that you should put the camera this way, or you should have a cut here. And the idea of these crazy artists who are just on the edge and are breaking rules instead of following them… that’s what’s under threat right now. The flip side of that is unbridled creativity, someone who fundamentally just doesn’t know what they want to do, because they don’t want to invest their own inner being in the deepest way human beings can, which is the source of all great art. When you put yourself on the line, and it’s life or death, and you risk everything to get this work out, the other side of it means you have people just spewing stuff—whatever pops in their mind—and it’s not resolved or deepened.
Some of the new work combines new HD tech and old film technology.
I’ve been working with video my entire adult life; I first touched a video camera in 1969 when I was in high school. I was by chance born at a certain time. I just caught the wave of this new technological revolution that we’re in now. The wave was the popular acceptance of first radio, then television, and then the moving image. I feel that I have at my fingertips for the first time in my life, as of three years ago, the entire range of video from its inception—in terms of very dark b/w, grainy, low resolution, analog surveillance technology, which is where video was born, but very bad quality by today’s standards… from that, you could draw a straight line to George Lucas, who uses a $160K hi-def camera to make movies.
In my lifetime, from student to older established artist, I have the entire evolution of video, and therefore I have a palette. Many people make a mistake by rejecting old equipment, old technology, just because it’s funky, and it’s old, or bad quality. They’re missing out on a lot. Pneuma, for example, was shot with an old surveillance camera, in 1994, and it has imagery that you’ve never seen before. I’ve had more than one young person ask me, “what software did you use?” and that’s totally understandable, because software is simply the modeling of something that existed in another form. It’s what digital does really well, it models things, so eventually someone will come up with a software package that looks like Pneuma outside, but for now I have the only one of a camera that was made in 1972 which isn’t made anymore, which has this quality to it that you can’t find anywhere. So that’s kind of a thrilling thing. For me, all image qualities are equal. And we need that.
So in this series with all the little HD monitors… there’s that clarity and the fuzziness. How did you achieve that?
There are three bodies of work in the gallery here. Acceptance was the first time we used this special water wall where you have a completely flat wall of water, like a pane of glass, and people walk through it. In that piece I used this camera from the 1970s, a b/w surveillance camera, and the latest super high level HD camera. We optically aligned them, thanks to James Cameron’s optical team, which we hired to put these two cameras together, which was a really difficult task. We shot people coming through the water, and you see this transition from grainy b/w to super high resolution, full color. That led to an offshoot of secondary works—multiple people coming through the water, called the Transfiguration Series, dealing with the dead coming back to life, my most recent work here.
The second body of material came out of the Tristan opera. Bodies of Light… I thought it would find a place in the opera but it didn’t; Poem B comes out of similar material, dealing with death and mortality, loneliness, isolation. And Old Oak, a 36’ wide image projected in the Tristan opera. The third body of work is one piece, Pneuma, from 1994, a large room installation that’s immersive; you’re surrounded by images shot with this old camera. They’re not really clear, so you’re forced in a way to be creative, to engage, fill in the gaps.
I think a danger today—you have television, internet, filling in the gaps, telling us what to think, what to believe, who to vote for, what to buy… I think we’re in danger of losing not only our dignity, and moral choices that we make, but losing our creative impulse. A lot of these things, including television and videos, are like prosthetic devices that do the work for you. So leaving things out is an art, and that’s why Zen Buddhism and the Asian cultures are so important, because that’s exactly what it’s about.
In Pneuma, you see things that literally aren’t there. I know all the images in there very intimately; people will recognize certain ones—a tree, a house, a dog, a child on a playground… but within that, there’s this transition zone where the image breaks down technically. The camera doesn’t quite have enough light to see that face in a dark room, and it struggles. The image breaks down, almost like the way you make an image in the sand and you blow on it and the image scatters —that’s exactly what’s going on except with pixels. That kind of evaporation or disintegration of the fabric of the image creates another kind of image. The relationship between body and mind, between rational thinking and imagination, for me is the critical one—it’s where the future of creative life will come from. It won’t come from what we know, it’ll come from what we don’t know.
Most of your work that I’ve seen seems to be on a more human scale versus a large scale.
That’s more in the plasma era. It was 1998 that I first saw an LCD screen. They were perfected and became close to photographic realism at a scale you could hold in your hand. They got lighter, thinner, higher quality, more reliable, more precise…that’s the end of the middle ages to the renaissance, when oil painting first came out, and the first artists perfected oil painting in northern Europe, in places like today’s Belgium and Holland, and they recognized that it was a brand new medium, and it allowed them to work more precisely than they ever could before. It changed art history forever.
It’s the same situation now—the technology is leading the artists. It happened in the renaissance, it’s happening now. Sometimes it’s the inverse effect: the artists lead the technology because they have new ways of seeing it. So we’re in a period now where it’s very similar to the 15th century—Gutenberg’s press was the internet, and oil paint was in fact digital because the paint didn’t dry for three days; you could keep messing around with it, changing the image you were working with gradually, so there’s a lot of similarities. Anytime science and art come together, like right now… that’s why everything seems to be appearing to us in the guise of art, whether it’s an advertisement on a giant billboard, or something that’s projected, like in the elevator at the hotel, there’s a video collage projected… they sell things to people, they have politicans reach us that way, yet the underlying language of it is the techniques of art.
Do you have your eye on any new technologies?
It’s not really the technology that’s the important thing, it’s the person behind it. As the Dalai Lama told me when we had a private audience with him in 2005, he said, “If I have love in my heart, I can feed you nutritious food with this fork. If I have hatred in my heart, I can kill you with this fork.” So the technology is neutral; it’s the individual and the intention of the individual that can make the technology be negative or positive.
Watch a video interview and clips of Viola’s work from the 2007 Venice Biennale:
Images: (top) Pnuema, (bottom) Old Oak Study.