Bill Viola: Art demands creativity from viewers, too. Major New York retrospective features his work in video

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`CREATIVITY is not the property of artists alone,'' says video artist Bill Viola. ``It's a basic element of the human character, no matter what culture you're in, no matter where you are on Earth or in history. When we talk about art, it's not creativity that's the real question. ...It's the desire to express things to the public.'' Mr. Viola has felt that desire to communicate since he was a youngster with a talent for painting and music. Now he's an important artist, but he still feels creativity belongs as much to his audience as to himself.

``I think you have to be creative to look at art,'' he says with conviction. ``In my work I've made demands - almost unconsciously - for a certain level of creativity. ... I'm not handing out ideas on a silver platter when [people] look at my work. Energy in equals energy out!''

What are the hallmarks of Viola's work? His videotapes rarely have stories or characters in the usual sense. They focus on people, places, and objects in the real world, gazing at them with a patience and intensity that transforms the ordinary into the visionary.

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His best videos are marked by persistent camera work and an imaginative way of ordering shots so that unexpected meanings and relationships emerge. Many examples are on view through Jan. 3 in a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art here, including three room-size installations and a generous selection of tapes.

Discussing his work in a wide-ranging interview at the museum, Viola confessed to an ``ego battle'' that breaks out sometimes in his mind. ``Is it me that's doing this stuff,'' he asks himself at such moments, ``or is this stuff being given to me, sort of? Is it really my personality being expressed, or are things just transmitted through me?''

The question arises because Viola's artistic decisions grow from ideas and observations that everyone has access to.

``For me,'' he says, ``the process of making a work directly parallels a sort of life process that everyone shares, not just artists alone. It's a process of creativity, thought, and gradual realization. A lot of my works start from a kernel of an idea, like a seed. ... I know I'm ready to begin a work when I get the awareness that the seed contains the whole tree or the whole plant.

``I don't know how to describe how I know that. But some ideas - when you get 'em, they just won't go away. They kind of nag at you. And each time they come back, a little more is revealed. You see it branching out and connecting with other things. My works really begin in a very simple way. Sometimes it's an image, and sometimes it's words I might write, like a fragment of a poem.''

Memory plays a part, as well - even in a long and complex work like ``I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like,'' his latest videotape. It's a meditative study of the relationships between intellectual and visceral modes of experience, focusing on people and animals in settings far removed from the urbanized, modern world. One ``seed'' for this superb work was an event from Viola's childhood, when he accidentally fell into a lake. Nearby adults were alarmed by the mishap, he recalls, but he was enchanted by it.

``I remember the amazing experience,'' he says, ``of this world I had no idea existed. I just broke through to it. It was incredibly beautiful, and I wasn't scared at all. There was this emerald green light everywhere, filtering down, and I could see the sandy bottom, and plants moving back and forth, and fish.

``Then a big hand came down, and gripped me, and yanked me right out of the water,'' he concludes, still sounding a little disappointed that the adventure had to end.

Viola forgot about those underwater images until a few years ago. Then they surfaced in his memory and became an inspiration for ``I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like,'' which has many fish images and begins with the camera leaping from a lake into the air. Viola is fascinated with the idea that our dry-land world must look very strange to a fish - or any ``outsider'' with a different mental and physical makeup - just as the undersea world looks exotic to humans.

``There's another world out there,'' the artist says, turning memory into metaphor, ``just beyond the world we're in. It's just on the other side of that translucent, semitransparent surface.''

This strongly felt idea, dating back to Viola's early years, helps explain his use of video to capture the world not in flatly realistic terms, but in a visionary way that suggests there's more to existence than common surfaces - and common ways of looking and thinking - reveal.

Viola turned to video after exploring art and music for many years. ``I think video comes closer to expressing [transcendent material] because its foot is half out the door of the material world anyway,'' he says.

Another of Viola's key interests is in ``the power of the gaze.'' He's captivated by the idea that vision can transmit to us things ``beyond and beneath language and the social dialogue'' of everyday life.

``I want to break the separation that vision imposes on the environment,'' Viola says. ``We can sit here and look out the window at those buildings, but it's a whole other thing to go down the elevator, walk across the street, and lean against them and touch them with your cheek. Vision connects you. But it also separates you.

``In my work, and my life, I feel a desire to merge. Not in terms of losing my own identity..., but there's a feeling that life is interconnected, that there's life in stones and rocks and trees and dirt, like there is in us.''

Hence the long animal shots in some of his videotapes, which reflect his forays into the world of nature. A visit with an animal is ``sort of a meeting of two intelligences,'' he adds. ``They're ordered very differently from each other, but the meeting point is the gaze.''

In making his videotapes, Viola says he aims for an ``internal consistency, which people can sense but maybe not literally read - or rather, which they can read in their own ways. I connect my work very strongly with poetry, and people ... can use poems in their own personal ways, beyond what the poet might have specifically intended. The bottom line is that ... the work has to be true to yourself and your own life.''

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