“Why did I choose video? I think video chose me,” Bill Viola said in a recent interview for his retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris. This was not just the calling of a medium, but of a specific technology’s ability to express the profound. Many artists are drawn to new electronics in order to create what previously had been impossible. Video pioneers like Bill Viola show the potential of technological innovations for exploring life’s most philosophical questions using the most advanced technology available.
By Megan Guerber
Video technology has become an increasingly accessible tool for today’s artists. Back in 1974, John Baldessari predicted this in a short essay ("TV Like 1. A Pencil 2 Won't Bite Your Leg"). He wrote that video cameras would soon be as common as a pencil in an artist’s toolbox. As television became increasingly present in our lives, video technology also began to resonate with us at a deeper level. Forty years later, it is clear that Baldessari’s prediction has indeed come true. Some may worry that video is not as pure of an art form as painting or drawing, yet this relatively recent tool can be used just as sensitively as a brush or a pencil.
Bill Viola is one of video art’s pioneers. Viola uses video exactly as Baldessari predicted: as a tool to express his innermost thoughts. Viola is known both for examining metaphysical themes and for the painterly quality of his work. He frequently presents ultra-slowed down movements in all-encompassing installations, using water, fire, and human expression to question birth, death and eternity. His use of high-definition cameras and screens make every detail count.
Viola’s attraction to this art form is perhaps an unexpected one. As a young artist, he felt that the world was moving too fast. He yearned to slow things down and found that video offered him a chance to do so. Many of Viola’s works are presented in slow motion, not only allowing viewers a chance to sink into the theme, but also the ability to pick up on greater visual information—showing there is always much more happening in a moment than we are aware of. Viola offers us the opportunity to slow down enough to catch often-overlooked nuances, an impact that becomes increasingly important in this day in age.
Viola currently has a retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris through July 21, 2014. This show presents his most important works from the 1970s to today, displaying his deft skill for exploring the most intimate questions of humankind by using the most advanced technology available.
In a recent interview for the Grand Palais retrospective, Viola stated that the most valuable trait of video is that it “gives us time back.” A moment can be recorded, dissected, slowed down and viewed multiple times. We are able to sit with this moment for as long as we desire, to find hidden details that we would otherwise miss. One of the greatest struggles of mankind has been the preservation of time, the yearning to prolong the momentary. In Viola’s hands, video serves as an artistic answer to this struggle.
What makes Viola’s work unique is how he presents his ever-internal perspective in such an accessible way. He approaches the grandest of questions with sound and imagery that are inviting to the viewer. His work is steeped in art historical references, and yet one does not need to be aware of these in order to understand his message. The Dali Lama once commented on Viola’s use of technology during a conversation, stating, “It’s not the technology, it’s the intention of the user.” This profound insight by the Dali Lama demonstrates a necessary understanding of all tools. The features of technology are never as important as how they are used.
You can hear Viola speak about his work on the Grand Paris website.