Bill Viola, born in 1951, is a contemporary video artist. He received his BFA in Experimental Studios from Syracuse University in 1973 where he studied visual art with Jack Nelson and electronic music with Franklin Morris. Music is an important part of his life and work. Not only has he participated in musical ensembles, like the group “Rainforest” (later called “Composers Inside Electronics”), of which he was a member of from 1973-1980 along with avant-garde composer David Tudor, he has also created videos to accompany musical compositions ranging from classical to rock music. His work focuses on universal human experiences, like birth, death, and the unfolding of consciousness. His work has roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions in Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism. Viola’s international travels have given him unique experiences that have influenced his work. He has traveled to the Sahara desert in Tunisia to record mirages. He was awarded a US/Japan Creative Artist fellowship during which he lived in Japan for a year and a half, studying Zen Buddhism and becoming the first artist-in-residence at Sony Corporation’s Atsugi Research Laboratories. In Long Beach, California, he initiated projects to create pieces based on medical imaging technologies, animal consciousness at the San Diego Zoo, and fire walking rituals among the Hindu communities in Fiji. He has traveled throughout the American Southwest photographing and videotaping Native American Rock Art sites and nocturnal desert landscapes. At the end of 2005 he journeyed to Dharamsala, India, to record a prayer blessing with the Dalai Lama. His work uses the inner language of subjective thoughts and collective memories that allows the audience with whom he is communicating to experience his pieces directly and in their own personal way.
A certain spirituality is evident in much of Bill Viola’s work. A prime example of this is the subject of the above video, “Ocean Without A Shore.” It opened in 2007 in the Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years in Venice, Italy. “Ocean Without A Shore” debuted in the Church of San Gallo, a small 16th century Venetian church. Viola chose that particular location without knowing how he would use it, but he ended up producing a project that had multiple screens on altars on different walls of the space. The piece focuses on the reincarnation of the dead and their return to this world. The subjects approach you and then cross through a wall of water coming into full color, as if they were stepping into reality. This piece really intrigued me and made me curious as to what may have brought this idea to his mind. In much of his work, it seems as though water plays a major role and I wonder if it’s always used in the same context, for example as a symbol of birth and rebirth, or whether it is used as a symbol for both that and death as well. I think his work is thought provoking and leaves the audience a little dumbfounded by the subject matter. It definitely awakens my curiosity, which I think is one of his goals. His work has expanded my view of video art and makes me wonder more about the video art that is continually being produced in the art world today.