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

By David Sterritt / December 21, 1987

New York

`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.

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``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.

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.