Bill Viola

Bill Viola

United States 1951

Video Art, New Media Art

Bill Viola
Bill Viola
United States
July 28, 2016

Deeply rooted in the spiritual tradition of Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism, video works of Bill Viola question the phenomena of sense of perception as a way to self-knowledge with an accent on fundamental human themes as birth, death or aspects of consciousness. Since the early 70’s, he has created over 150 various artworks, from videotapes, video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances to recordings intended for television productions, establishing the video as an equal and widely used form of contemporary art. With an inner expression of subjective thoughts and collective memories, his art speaks to a wide audience which is enabled to experience the work in a personal way.

gallery exhibition 2016 2003 passion 2005 getty passions
Bill Viola – Ocean Without a Shore, 2007 – Image copyright of Thierry Bal

Viola: The Leading Video Artist of Today

Viola was born in 1951 and grew up in Queens and Westbury, New York. He studied in the Experimental Studios of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Syracuse University. His first job was at Everson Museum of Art where he worked as a video technician, but soon the artist moved to the position of technical director at Art/tapes/22 in Florence, one of the first video art studios in Europe, where he met video artists Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. His television premiere occurred in 1976, during his engagement at the WNET Channel 13 Television Laboratory in New York, when he created a series of works. Accepting the invitation to show his videotapes in Melbournian La Trobe University in 1977, Viola determined his destiny by meeting cultural arts director Kira Perov who became his wife and lifelong collaborator. They lived in Japan for a year, where beside the job of artist-in-residency at Sony Corporation’s Atsugi research laboratories, the couple studied Buddhism with Zen Master Daien Tanaka. After they returned to the United States and settled in the Long Beach, Viola and Perov started to explore medical imaging technologies of the human body, animal consciousness at the San Diego Zoo and rituals of tribes from Fiji island, based on walking on fire. Their next project was about Native American rock and sites which they photographed and taped with specialized video cameras.

As a representative of the United States at the 46th Venice Biennale, Viola showed a series of works named Buried Secrets, among which is one of his best-known pieces, The Greeting, his interpretation of Jacopo Pontormo’s The Visitation. The sixteenth-century painting transformed into a mysterious contemporary narrative use the extreme slow motion emphasizes the characters’ gestures and glances, expressing the psychological dynamic of the exchange. In 2002, Viola created his most ambitious project, Going Forth By Day, a five-part projection-based installation in HD video that explores the cycles of human existence – birth, death and rebirth, through the different phases in each video with audio accompaniment. Two years later, his successful collaboration with director Peter Sellars and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen resulted with the new production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, presented in project form by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered as a complete opera at Parisian Opera in 2005. Viola’s distinctive exquisitely detailed high-resolution slow-motion imagery emphasizes effects of water and fire and subjects’ interaction with them. A fan of graininess of the old analog video, Viola used everything from 35mm film cameras to analog black-and-white CCTV surveillance cameras which are his favorite.

Viola’s video Going Forth By Day is his most ambitious project

St Paul Cathedrale: The Martyrs and Mary

Mostly dealing with the ideas of human consciousness and experience, Viola always draws inspiration from his interest in mystical traditions, as Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic spiritualism conveyed through the aesthetic of western medieval and Renaissance devotional art. Constantly followed by dualism and the idea that someone can’t understand something until he perceives its opposite, he is focused on the themes of life and death, light and dark, loud and quiet. Divided into three categories, Viola’s work is conceptual, visual or a unique combination of the two. His ultra-slow motion video involves the viewer, encouraging him to dive into the display and its deepest meaning, making the work accessible and close, which is unusual characteristic in a context of contemporary art. The big themes of human life also affect his relationship with the audience, critics, and collectors. Since his beginnings, music has always been an important part of Viola’s creation. From 1973-1980 he collaborated with avant-garde composer David Tudor as a member of his Rainforest ensemble, later called Composers Inside Electronics. The artist has also signed the videos from compositions including 20th-century composer Edgard Varèse’ Déserts in 1994 with the Ensemble Modern, and, in 2000, a three-song video for the rock group Nine Inch Nails’ world tour. In the history of video art, he stands out for his brilliant employment and integration of sound. Through his cooperation with Tudor, he comprehended sound as “a material thing, a physical entity” that defines space as much as light does. His medium represents the so-called perceptual field in which both sound and visual support the understanding of space and time. He uses low frequencies for the same manipulations as the images, in an attempt to bring into consciousness things that are beyond the level of awareness. Music always follows the visual display and his method of binaural recording simultaneous with photography, opposite to the Hollywood standards of mixing soundtracks down to two stereo channels, provides realistic depth and resonance.

Among his recent works, installation Ocean Without a Shore from 2008, represents his comeback to the Venice Biennale (52nd). Exploring the theme of life and death, the video shows people standing in the black foreground, producing gallons of water from themselves as if they were waterfalls. In 2014, St Paul’s Cathedral in London housed Viola’s Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), an installation consisted of four screens each displaying a single figure overwhelmed by the attack of natural force. Gathered around the theme of martyrdom for beliefs, images of physical suffering reflect the human capacity to bear the pain and even death in order to remain faithful to their principles. The Martyrs is followed by the second large-scale video installation in the same church, Mary Carries the Body of Jesus, and they make the first moving-image artworks to be installed in a cathedral in Britain on a long term basis. “The two themes of Mary and Martyrs symbolize some of the profound mysteries of human existence. One is concerned with birth and the other death; one with comfort and creation, the other with suffering and sacrifice. If I am successful, the final pieces will function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion.” – was the artist’s words.

Video Martyrs symbolize some of the profound mysteries of human existence

 gallery exhibition 2016 2003 passion 2005 getty
Bill Viola – Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014 – Image via

Exhibitions and the Most Prominent Projects of Bill Viola

Since the beginning of his career, Viola’s video artworks have been seen all over the world. Among the most prominent exhibitions is Bill Viola: Installations and Videotapes, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1987; Bill Viola: Unseen Images, seven installations toured six venues in Europe, 1992-1994, organized by the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Kira Perov. Viola represented the United States at the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995 with Buried Secrets, a series of five new installation works. In 1997 the Whitney Museum of American Art organized his great retrospection, Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey that included over 35 installations and videotapes and traveled for two years to six museums in the United States and Europe. In 2002 Viola completed his most ambitious project, Going Forth By Day, a five-part projected digital “fresco” cycle, his first work in High-Definition video, commissioned by the Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin and the Guggenheim Museum, New York. Bill Viola: The Passions, a new series inspired by late medieval and early Renaissance art, was exhibited at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles in 2003 then traveled to the National Gallery, London, the Fondación “La Caixa” in Madrid and the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. One of the largest exhibitions of Viola’s installations to date, Bill Viola: Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) (2006-2007), drew over 340,000 visitors to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. In 2007 nine installations were shown at the Zahenta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw; and Ocean Without a shore was created for the 15th century Church of San Gallo during the Venice Biennale. In 2008 Bill Viola: Visioni interiori, a survey exhibition organized by Kira Perov, was presented in Rome at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. In 2014, twenty works were shown at the Grand Palais, Paris, in his largest survey exhibition to date, and a few months later, part one of the St Paul’s commission was installed in the London cathedral, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water). Bill Viola is a recipient of numerous awards and recognitions for his extraordinary achievement in the field of Video and Media Art.

Bill Viola lives and works in Long Beach, California.

Featured image: Bill Viola portrait – Image via

YearExhibition titleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2015Bill Viola: Selected Works Art Gallery of South Australia, St. Peter’s Cathedral, and Queen’s Theatre, organized by Adelaide Festival of Arts, Adelaide, AustraliaSolo
2015Masterpiece 2015: Bill Viola De Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, The NetherlandsSolo
2015Bill Viola Kukje Gallery, Seoul, KoreaSolo
2015Bill Viola Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, West Yorkshire, UKSolo
2014Tristan und Isolde Teatro Real, Madrid, SpainSolo
2014Bill Viola: In Dialogue Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando Madrid, SpainSolo
2014Bill Viola Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, FranceSolo
2014Revival of Tristan at La Bastille Opera Bastille, Paris, FranceSolo
2014Bill Viola: Passions Cathedral of Berne & Kunstmuseum Bern, SwitzerlandSolo
2014Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)(Permanent), St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, UKSolo
2014Bill Viola: Transformation Faurschou Foundation, Beijing, ChinaSolo
2013Bill Viola: Ascension Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, USASolo
2013Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures Blain|Southern, London, UKSolo
2013Bill Viola: The Return Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, AustraliaSolo
2013Point of Departure Parque de La Memoria, Buenos Aries, ArgentinaSolo
2012Bill Viola: The Raft Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri, USASolo
2012Bill Viola: Unspoken James Cohan Gallery, Shanghai, ChinaSolo
2012Bill Viola: Submerged-Spaces Norfolk & Norwich Festival, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UKSolo
2012Bill Viola: Reflections Villa di Panza, Varese, ItalySolo
2012Bill Viola: Water Nordic Watercolor Museum, Skarhamn, SwedenSolo
2012Bill Viola: Liber Insularum Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami, Florida, USASolo
2011Bill Viola: Quintet of the Unseen Blain|Southern, London, UKSolo
2011Bill Viola: Liber Insularum Sala de Arte Contemporaneo del Gobierno de Canarias, Tenerife, Canary Islands, SpainSolo
2011Bill Viola: Transformations Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2011Amore e Morte Gucci Museum, Florence, ItalySolo
2011Ocean Without a Shore Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), Philadelphia. Pennsylvania, USASolo
2010Bill Viola per Capodimonte The Museo di Capodimonte of Naples, Naples, ItalySolo
2010Bill Viola: The Quintet of the Astonished Urban Video Project, Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York, USASolo
2010Emergence: Bill Viola at the Accademia Gallery Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, ItalySolo
2010Bill Viola: Figurative Works Museo Picasso Málaga, Spain Solo
2010Bill Viola: Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension Presented by Kaldor Public Art Projects in association with the Melbourne International Arts Festival; St. Carthage's Church, Melbourne, AustraliaSolo
2010Bill Viola: The Raft Presented by ACMI for the Melbourne International Arts Festival in association with Kaldor Public Art Projects, Melbourne, AustraliaSolo
2009Bill Viola: Bodies of Light James Cohan Gallery, New York, New York, USASolo
2009Bill Viola: The Intimate Work De Pont Museum of Contemporary Art, Tilburg, NetherlandsSolo
2009Bill Viola: Being Time The Pier Arts Center, Stromness, Orkney, Scotland, UKSolo
2009Bill Viola: Installations and Screenings (Screenings part of Forum Expanded, 59th Berlinale), Haunch of Venison, Berlin, Germany Solo
2008Bill Viola: The Tristan Project Art Gallery of New South Wales, and St Saviour’s Church, Sydney, AustraliaSolo
2008Bill Viola: Transfigurations Kukje Gallery, Seoul, KoreaSolo
2008Ocean Without a Shore National Gallery of Victoria, AustraliaSolo
2008Bill Viola: Visioni interiori Palazzo delle Esposizioni, Rome, ItalySolo
2007Bill Viola: Las Horas Invisibles Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada, Palacio de Carlos V (Alhambra), SpainSolo
2007Bill Viola Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw, PolandSolo
2007Ocean Without a Shore Church of San Gallo, Venice, ItalySolo
2006Bill Viola – Video2006 Recipient of the NORD LB Art Prize, Kunsthalle Bremen, Bremen, GermanySolo
2006LOVE DEATH The Tristan Project Haunch of Venison, and St. Olave’s College (two venues), London, UKSolo
2006Bill Viola: Hatsu-Yume (First Dream) Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, JapanSolo
2005Bill Viola: The Passions Madrid, Spain; and National Gallery of Australia, CanberraSolo
2005Bill Viola Visions ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Aarhus, DenmarkSolo
2005Bill Viola James Cohan Gallery, New York, USASolo
2005Tristan und Isolde fully staged opera premiere at the Opéra National de Paris, FranceSolo
2004Bill Viola: Temporality and Transcendence Guggenheim, Bilbao, SpainSolo
2003Bill Viola: The Passions Getty Museum, Los AngelesSolo
2003Bill Viola Kukje Gallery, Seoul, KoreaSolo
2003Bill Viola: Five Angels for the Millennium Ruhrtriennale, Gasometer, Oberhausen, GermanySolo
2003Bill Viola: The Passions National Gallery, LondonSolo
2002Bill Viola: Going Forth By Day Deutsche Guggenheim, BerlinSolo
2001Bill Viola: Five Angels for the Millennium Anthony d'Offay Gallery, LondonSolo
2000The World of Appearances Helaba Main Tower, Frankfurt, GermanySolo
2000Bill Viola: New Work James Cohan Gallery, New YorkSolo
1999 Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany Solo
1999 Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California Solo
1998 Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey Los Angeles County Museum of ArtSolo
1998 Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Solo
1997 Bill Viola: The Messenger The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland Solo
1997Bill Viola: Fire, Water, Breath Guggenheim Museum (SoHo), New YorkSolo
1997Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Travels to Solo
1996 Buried Secrets Arizona State University Art Museum Solo
1996Bill Viola: New Work Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, Georgia Solo
1996Bill Viola: The Messenger Durham Cathedral, Visual Arts UK 1996, Durham, England Solo
1996 Bill Viola: The Messenger South London Gallery, London, England Solo
1996 Bill Viola: The Messenger Oriel Mostyn, Gwynedd, WalesSolo
1996Bill Viola: Trilogy: Fire, Water, Breath Chapelle Saint-Louise de la Salpetrière, Festival d’Automne, ParisSolo
1995Buried Secrets United States Pavilion, 46th Venice Biennale, Venice, ItalySolo
1995 Buried Secrets Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hannover, Germany Solo
1994Bill Viola: Stations American Center inaugural opening, Paris, FranceSolo
1994Bill Viola: Território do InvisívelSite of the Unseen, Centro Cultural Banco do Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, BrazilSolo
1993 Bill Viola. Unseen Images Moderna Museet, StockholmSolo
1993 Bill Viola. Unseen Images Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, MadridSolo
1993 Bill Viola. Unseen Images Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne, SwitzerlandSolo
1992Bill Viola: Nantes Triptych Chappelle de l'Oratoire, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes, FranceSolo
1992Bill Viola Donald Young Gallery, Seattle, Washington (five installations)Solo
1992Bill Viola: Two Installations Anthony d'Offay Gallery, London, EnglandSolo
1992Bill Viola. Unseen Images Stadtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, Düsseldorf, Germany. Solo
1990Bill Viola: The Sleep of Reason Fondation Cartier pour l'Art Contemporain, Jouy-en-Josas, FranceSolo
1989Bill Viola Fukui Prefectural Museum of Art, Fukui City, Japan, part of The 3rd Fukui International Video Biennale.Solo
1988Bill Viola: Survey of a Decade Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, TexasSolo
1987Bill Viola: Installations and Videotapes The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkSolo
1985Summer 1985 Museum of Contemporary Art, Los AngelesSolo
1985Bill Viola Moderna Museet, Stockholm, SwedenSolo
1983Bill Viola ARC, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, FranceSolo
1974Bill Viola: Video and Sound Installations The Kitchen Center, New York 1979, Projects: Bill Viola The Museum of Modern Art, New YorkSolo
1973New Video Work Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New YorkSolo