Bill Viola: The Interview

Karen Pyudik


A student of Renaissance devotional painting and spirituality at large, Bill Viola produces video art grander in scope and freer in dynamism than most of his contemporaries. Though the medium has often drifted toward conceptual and methodic experimentation, video art has always had an expressive side that allows for a great deal of compositional freedom. Viola’s work has explored ancient forms of spirituality, such as Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism, and Sufism, as well as their intersection with geopolitics and technology.


Viola explores the relationships between mind, spirit and matter. His video installations use complex displays such as triptychs to visualize metaphysical themes. He employs long takes of natural phenomena and extreme slow-motion video portraiture to express the layering of thought, feeling and experience in the physical world. In that sense, his work is both old as time and on the cutting edge of technology. (Viola used HD video years before it became a popular medium.)

Viola works with an extraordinary team of artists to create his mesmerizing work. His cinematographer, Portland filmmaker Henry Dawson, has worked with him for 15 years. Kira Perov, Viola’s wife, has produced, assisted, and guided his work since 1978. His production designer, Felis Stella, is an accomplished media artist in her own right who has helped Viola realize his complex spiritual iconography.


In November 2010, Viola began working on two plasma screen altarpieces for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The screens will be placed in the east end of the cathedral on either side of the high altar and the American Memorial Chapel. These two multi-screen installations are titled “The Life of Mary” and “The Martyrs.”  “The Life of Mary will be a triptych with two 50-inch plasmas that flank a larger 65-inch screen. (Viola has completed much of the work on “The Life of Mary.”) His next piece, “The Martyrs,” will consist of four plasma screens vertically placed together.


We caught up with Bill Viola on a set of “Herod’s Terror,” a two-minute long segment to be incorporated in “The Life of Mary.” Using the unlikely backdrop of downtown Los Angeles, Viola depicts the Biblical episode when Mary and Joseph flee the aftermath of King Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18). According to the New Testament, King Herod ordered the mass slaughter of young male children in Bethlehem after the Magi predicted a newborn King of the Jews would take his throne.


In the video, Joseph drags Mary in a carriage along a street filled with images of terror and death. We see homeless people, a drunken fight, and a man lying in the middle of the road. The camera follows the pair through the bleak yet mysteriously beautiful landscape. Their eyes avoid the viewer’s gaze.


After the shoot, Viola agreed to speak with Highbrow Magazine about his work.


Was “Herod’s Terror” influenced by specific Medieval art or Early Renaissance work?  What are your artistic influences?

Well, I would say ostensibly, it was seeing over a long period of time—from high school till now pretty much—many versions of “The Massacre of the Innocents.”  And I always had a hard time with it.  First of all, I couldn’t imagine that someone would just massacre all of these innocent children. And I also felt that I was being manipulated by the story. So, I had this ambivalence about it. 


For my version, I knew right away that I was not interested in retelling the same story. I think that the power of that story involves true terror beset upon the people. That’s the general nature of humanity. Suffering will occur in almost every generation. There is always an Adolf Hitler. There is always going to be a Herod. There are always going to be people that literally try to destroy other people, be it based on ethnicity or class.


So, I think, that’s the general aspect of what we’re doing here. At the same time, I realized I had to make something that had some kind of hope and resolution for the future, for a better place. And, so, I visualized this street.  First of all, the street I found was really beautiful because it’s an amazing location and has this incredible mix of old and new and industrial and commercial. It’s a very interesting place. I saw it as a kind of concrete river between two walls, like canyons almost. At its beginning, there would be smoke or clouds from which people emerged and started moving down the river. The river’s course would take them through all of these phases: they would look for food; people would try to hurt them; they would be forgotten, lost, or completely put out of society. And so all of those elements are almost like floating down this river.


And three-quarters of the way down the river, it ends up in this place—just after you see these young men trying to beat up and almost kill this other young man—where you see these two African-American people standing in front of a 55-gallon oil drum with fire coming out if it, and it’s lighting up this whole wall and they are there kind of praying, trying to make this a better place. That is the ray of hope. 


And the last thing that you see is an image of these baby dolls spread out all over the road. Some of them have their arms taken off, and some of them have their heads taken off.  They are all dismembered. That’s the destruction that happens and [awaiting] for a kind of rebirth, so that things can be put back together. Because right now, everything has been taken apart, and it’s taken from us. It’s broken down. And, there’s this fragmentation, this crazy Cartesian crazy logic, where you have to disassemble everything. And, I think it’s our job as artists today to put the pieces all back together. That’s what we’re doing.


Is Christian iconography a background for exploring these extreme situations and emotions?

I think one of the things about Christianity—which I like actually—is the idea of not just Christ on earth, or the savior on earth. I like the idea that he is flesh and blood. And most other religions have this idea that spiritual beings are somehow in another dimension than we are. They are not here with us. They are on some other ethereal plane. The interesting thing to me about Christianity is this idea that heaven and earth were being joined, which is exactly what the Jews objected to during the early years of Christianity. They were repulsed by the fact that, instead of taking the bones out to the cemetery and leaving them there to ascend to the stars, these people were keeping them as relics. They inverted the notion of the journey to heaven. Instead of going up into the stars, they were actually going down into the ground so they could be born again. And that’s a really interesting, if convoluted, way of looking at things.


But, in the end, the basic idea involves taking a spiritual being and endowing it with human qualities in order to move it to the next step. We take it out of this ethereal, hypothetical world of spirit beings (in which I believe strongly in many ways) and then take it into ourselves, physically, mentally and emotionally. This is something I am working on and am kind of fascinated by. 


Science and religion have often conflicted historically. However, they co-exist peacefully in your art. You are both exploring the natural phenomenon of a storm and showing the revelation of angels. Can you explain your conception of science and religion?

One thing I learned after all these years, 40 years working in the medium of video (and of course now digital video): I think it was always my desire to join technology and spirituality because I think technology and spirituality are, in fact, actually very, very close together. They both deal with invisible things. They both deal with energy systems, which can transmute, turn into other things, and recombine themselves. They deal with this idea of rebirth. Destruction, creation, rebirth: they are part of the same cycle.


I think we are moving very rapidly, more than people think, to a point when technology and spirituality will be the same thing. And they will connect in a way that I think people don’t understand. It’s not about getting a better printer or a better airplane that can go faster. That’s the minor part of technology. The major part of technology is the connection we have created for ourselves and learned from studying the human body, from studying animals, how birds fly, and bringing those together so that they become the same. They become the total dimension that includes the physical world, the spiritual world and the metaphysical world.


What do you think we’ll experience as viewers when we see “Herod’s Terror”?

I haven’t seen “Herod’s Terror” in its entirety, but I think people will see the reflection of themselves. They will see poverty. They will see people who are being mistreated. They’ll see homelessness. They‘ll see violence. So, all of the things that plague our societies worldwide.  But they will also see hope. They will also see glimmers of light, and not only in the image of Joseph pulling the carriage with Mary. The most important thing is that there is this woman, this very special woman, who will enter this very negative, dangerous, unstable environment.  And you can almost see it in the piece. Although I don’t say it literally, she will be like a light that just comes right down. She will spread light through the street. That’s the metaphoric image that I have. And you feel it in this piece. 


The people we just finished working with were really touched by the whole thing. It starts with everything falling apart. Everybody is either homeless or they are suffering in any number of ways. Yet there are these moments of just sublime energy, when people are looking into the fire and feeling their own spirit. That is the essence of what I’ve always done.  No matter how bad it gets, I always feel like I want to find something that’s positive, like a small crack in the wall; I want to open it up more and go through.


I’ve done that with my art on multiple occasions over many years. I don’t want to go negative and do all these really dreary exposés of why things are screwed up, why they are all messed up, and why they are so bad and all these things that people always complain about. My way out of that, from when I was younger, was to just stop the negativity. And I just started looking for something that was positive that I could use as an escape path — to get out into the world and see something in a new light.


You’ve already shot the “Mary” part of the installation. Can you talk about “Martyrs,” the second part of your installation, which you haven’t shot yet?

“Martyrs” is a very, very interesting project. St. Paul’s [Cathedral] called us up. There was something called “The Messenger” that I did in 1996 for the Durham Cathedral, near Newcastle in Northern England. They really liked it. Some of the people in the Church of England saw it, and it started to travel. It started to get shown in a lot of places. So, I got put on the map in terms of spiritual issues.


The Church of England eventually asked if I would be interested in maybe doing a project for St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is the biggest cathedral in England. Of course, I said “yes.” That was 2005. And we’ve been talking about it ever since, and I finally started shooting it last November. We probably are going to finish it sometime next spring. Then it will be shown and become a permanent part of St. Paul’s about a year from now. We were commissioned to do two projects. One of them is “The Life of Mary.” It’s huge. It became quite a large project, and we’re trying to keep it under control. But it really is complex, and that’s been going on the longest. That’s what we’ve been shooting. The second one is almost a polar opposite, which is lovely. I love when things like that happen. 


On the one hand, you have the story of Mary, which is the story of a birth, of creativity, of fecundity, and how that comes into the world and how much it plays a role in so many things in the world, including our own beings. And, on the other side of that, is the polar opposite of death. They asked me to do a second piece on the martyrs. Basically, I am interested in the idea of martyrdom from the point of view of sacrifice. It’s really about what you would give up your life for. To be a martyr means that you value something more than life.


So, that was the first question I asked myself, and the answer came back. I protect my kids at all costs. I have two kids and my wife Kira. If I have to dive in front of a car to get them out of the way, I’d do it. I probably wouldn’t even think about it. And even if I could not imagine killing myself for anybody else, I would do it. So, it’s a very interesting topic. It’s obscured by all of the political stuff today, but everybody has asked that. People who have kids ask that. People who go to war to fight battles ask that. What's worth dying for? There are very few things that absolutely may be worth dying for, but people have sacrificed themselves in their name. So that’s a really interesting, powerful, powerful story — intentional death to create life on the other side. I haven’t gotten there in my own personal life, but I am going to try to explore some of those issues in “Martyrs.”


Author Bio:

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Pyudik graduated from the Hermitage School of Art History. In 1992 she moved to Los Angeles to continue her undergraduate work in Art History at UCLA. After graduation, she did art and historical research for an A&E documentary series, “History of Christianity.” In the fall of 1999 Pyudik was accepted into the Producing Program at the American Film Institute on an American Express Scholarship, awarded on behalf of Academy Award Nominee Brenda Blethyn, where she successfully produced five short narrative films and received her MFA in Producing. Her thesis project, "Ubuntu's Wounds," won the Pan-African Film Festival, the Kodak Audience Award, the Caucus Award, the Martin Ritt Award, and the DGA Award. "Ubuntu's Wounds" was screened at Cannes Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival. It was acquired and shown by HBO. In 2004 Pyudik produced a feature film"Malachance" (New York Times Critics' Pick, Cannes Film Festival, AFIFest, Cinevegas, IFP).

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