Bill Viola

Bill Viola is a contemporary conceptual video artist whose work appears mostly as video installations. He grew up in New York and graduated from Syracuse University in 1973 with a BFA in Experimental Studios. Viola’s work is mostly about experience – he strives to capture human experience such as birth, death, consciousness, and the vast array of human emotions. His work also has a spiritual element, and explores traditions from both Eastern and Western cultures. In my opinion, his portrayal of the two cultures acts as a way to bridge the gap created by their differences. One of the major themes in Viola’s work is that it is easy to identify with it – despite our individual cultures and backgrounds, Viola’s art appeals to us as humans largely because we can relate to it.

I’ll admit, I was most impressed with Viola’s work when it was in the form of video stills. Although the full length videos are impressive, the stills have an immensely a dramatic quality to them, which I feel encapsulates the emotion/experience that is portrayed. Part of the reason why they are so effective in this form is that they present the emotional experience without any context. Because of this, it becomes both an emotional and a visual experience.The viewer can then be free to interpret it in such a way that relates to him or her in the best way – it allows the experience to be more open ended. That said, there are certain aspects to the videos that can only be expressed in video form. In Reflection Pool, for example, the central figure hangs suspended in air for minutes at a time, while the reflection pool underneath him ripples peacefully and, at one point, shows the reflection of two figures as they walk around it. Three quarters of the way through the video, the pool becomes rippled as though someone has jumped in it, although the figure continues to hang frozen in air. The main intent of the video, I think, is to capture the precise moment where the tranquility of the reflection pool is disturbed, and then to hold it there. In this way, the entire work is almost like a photograph in and of itself, in that it captures time and distinctly describes a moment. What causes it to differ from photography, however, is the sense of tension that is caused by breaking the tranquility, and the subtle passage of time as the figure hangs motionless, then slowly fades away.

A couple of his other pieces struck me as particularly impressive. Silent Mountain shows a man screaming violently, expressing extreme anguish. It is a powerful piece because we can relate to the emotion being expressed, but at the same time it maintains a layer of ambiguity – we empathize with the man, but we also wonder what circumstance could have produced such extreme despair, and find ourselves reflecting on our own such experiences. Additionally, it deals with dualism, which Viola uses in a lot of his art. The main idea behind dualism is that we cannot fully understand the extent of an experience until we have experienced its opposite. Observance as well deals with human emotion. In this case, the video features a line of observers. As the people in the line make their way to the front, we catch a glimpse of silent grief on each of their faces. The video is in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The black background focuses our attention directly on the faces of the figures illuminated in the foreground, reminding us of the impact the event had on our lives – it touched everyone and enveloped the entire country in fear and grief. I think Viola intentionally leaves the video somewhat open-ended by not showing what the observers are looking at so that the viewer can reflect on his or her personal experience. Overall, I was extremely intrigued by Viola’s work because of just how relateable it is to the viewer. What I find most intriguing about it, though, is that despite the fact that it is easily relateable, it remains open to interpretation. At the same time that Viola expresses his own experiences, he allows us to experience them as our own, and allows us the freedom to derive our own individual interpretations.

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