An Evening with Video Artist Bill Viola

author: Bill Viola
published: Dec. 9, 2013,   recorded: March 2009,   views: 2520

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Bill Viola dims the lights in MIT’s Room 10-250, and begins to talk of life, death and all that lies between, leaving the realm of classroom and entering a place of potential enlightenment. Weaving together his video art, personal anecdotes, poetry and other writings from religious traditions spanning the globe and the ages, Viola illuminates his own spiritual journey and search for meaning. With a light touch, he manages to tap into reservoirs of deep feeling.

Viola imparts the vital interplay between his life experience, and the evolution of his vision. After his mother’s death, for instance, he ‘recovered’ her after finding a bowl she’d given him years earlier. Objects outlive us, Viola realized, and contain their own “spark of life.” This is true of technologically enabled things including Viola’s own video art. He admits that this medium makes him nervous. One of the world’s most dangerous weapons is the camera, whose “narrow focus, which is its strength, allows me to see inside a soul.” It can also “intentionally obscure an entire class or race.” Technology may be used to enrich or to harm, but its goal must be knowledge.

Viola recalls Buddha, who told his followers to treat his teachings like a raft, which should just be used “to get to the other side. From that point on, only an idiot would carry a boat around.” This is a good time for Buddhist ideas, suggests Viola. The world “seems like it’s deconstructing before our eyes.” Yet Viola says he’s “excited about this age. People who’ve been making money, doing stuff, must suddenly start living like artists.” He tells students they should be “very happy graduating into this emptiness,” because collapse brings opportunities for regeneration.

Viola recounts various other experiences and insights: a visit to an exhibit of Bodhisattva sculptures, which he regarded merely as ancient art, until an old lady adorned them with scarves, revering them as sacred objects; a Flemish painting of Mary that left him weeping, and made him realize that he “was using art, mourning his mother who was leaving this world.”

Only after years of training, says Viola, “could I see how my personal and professional life was not at odds, that it holds the whole edifice of the self up.” One profound expression of that interdependence is played in this talk: his 1992 Nantes Triptych, whose three ‘panels’ consist of videos of the live birth of a baby, the last moments of Viola’s mother’s life, and a clothed man drifting in an underwater pool “in currents between the poles of life.”

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