One saturday at his Signal Hill studio, where it's so quiet you can hear the oil derricks churn 200 yards away, Bill Viola is speaking to 20 undergraduates from Art Center. The weather outside is soft and smoggy, and the light is druggy-tropical--a good day for some students in Converse sneakers to plop down on pause before their real careers begin. And it's sort of beautiful, anyway, to hear Viola talk--this celebrated modern artist ("arguably the only video artist of whom it may be said that the label is not a contradiction in terms"--Wall Street Journal) who would be within his rights if all he did today was brag to the young, or wrap himself in gaudy royal thespian humility. Almost every story Viola can tell, after all, he's told some audience before.
But this is where Viola--tonsured, goateed and bespectacled, in plain dark T-shirt and plain dark overshirt, the Zen concessions to aging--might be compared to one of his videos: Something you might have seen or heard countless other times has suddenly become a little miraculous. Slumped against a stool, with a folder of notes he manages never to open, Viola sounds as if he's giving not just a talk, but something like the talk, the one the students should play back at crucial moments in later life . . . the Master Tape.
For instance, he informs them that creativity does not belong to them as artists: "It's a principle of the universe." He warns them that the voice within each of them must be protected and nurtured, so that it enters the world in an original, unguarded way. He cites Thomas Merton, the Upanishads, Marcel Proust, Primo Levi, the Dalai Lama and John Cage, plus a 14th century Japanese treatise on acting, which asserts that the artist's consciousness is a sea gull and the outer chaos is wind, and the right alignment of the two results in effortless flight.
"The honesty of that presence inside you," Viola says, "will determine the quality of your work--not ego, filling a market or filling a niche. There is something higher than art." And the students are paying very deep attention.
But first, a video. Because, you suddenly remember, Viola is somewhat famous for making videos. Guru is only an avocation. So he closes a skylight, and the studio goes dark for a screening of a 10-minute video from an installation titled "The Raft."
In it, a small crowd of urban strangers lingers in super slow-motion against a neutral backdrop, waiting for God knows what: probably a train or a bus. And for the first four or five minutes, how amazing life is just to watch--video makes voyeurs out of us all. We see the connective tissue of civility laid bare. The sidesteps and little reproaches as new bodies arrive on the scene. And all of this as composed as a Renaissance masterwork that just happens to move. Viola is a genius!
Or maybe it's too cheap a revelation, training a camera on the commonplace--although that could be almost enough. Would be enough, were it not for the added presence of something . . . premonitory? Fragile, maybe?
For there's the slightest quality of threat, shadowing the awareness of beauty, without which the beauty of life can't exist. And you remember now what you have always known: that one day this unseen enemy will have its say. In fact, if you were not so mesmerized by this slow-motion dream before you, you might feel the impulse to rise up from your seat, right now, and prevent what's coming.
Which is when you apprehend the early warning of a roar, an audio foreshock--a steady hiss that the actors can't yet hear, but that very gradually becomes horrifying, torrential, until from both left and right borders of the screen comes a devastating onslaught of water.
Now it requires some trust, or something worse, to keep watching. There's the first shock on the faces, the hands raised in futile defense, the bodies engulfed and overcome. In the center, a couple of women are driven down, this human tent collapsing at its pole, and yet--
Almost as part of the selfsame organism, the figures on the ends begin to rise, gaining strength, to form . . . barriers? The suggestion takes a long moment to confirm--you could be reading too much in. But no, it's true. You're watching spontaneous heroism. A defensive action at the wings.
Eventually, you halfway dare to imagine that the water is losing its force. Then that hint too is confirmed. Until, like phases of grief, there comes the ballet of bewilderment, and consolation, and tenuous embrace. And--fade.
As for Viola, well. He doesn't absolutely need to say anything more about "The Raft"--it might be a good time to respect the silence of those who've just been changed by it. And it's inevitable, perhaps, that when he does explain his ambitions for the piece, they sound so much more modest than what he actually achieved. He had wanted to do a "positive statement" about strangers in tragedy. His working title had been "Unseen Foe." But you've got to wonder if calling it "The Raft" hints at what Viola didn't start out knowing--that everyone here, the audience, the world, is in a lifeboat; that no one escapes, yet something survives. Which strikes me as a good definition for just about every work of art that has ever really lived, from the Psalms to "The Simpsons," but you can go a long time confusing yourself about what matters.
It's gotten to the point, 35 years on, when a glance at Bill Viola's resume can either make too much out of him or too little. Standing ovations at his openings are common decency now; and if he sits down cross-legged during one of them, like he did once at LACMA, as if to disown all that worldly account, then that gesture can seem exaggerated too, another performance.
Some of the random career highlights can start to sound made up. To learn about animal consciousness, he spent three weeks with a herd of bison in Wind Cave National Park (1984), then became artist-in-residence at the San Diego Zoo. He won a $245,000 MacArthur Fellowship. In the '70s, he performed avant-garde music with David Tudor's Rainforest ensemble. He made "the first video installation to be acquired by a religious institution" (the Church of England, 1996). He composed a video suite for the 2000 world tour of Nine Inch Nails. He was a scholar-in-residence at the Getty Research Institute (to study emotional states in Medieval and Renaissance art, a fellowship that resulted in his 13-film exhibition "The Passions") and artist-in-residence at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center (to study human-imaging technologies). He went to Tunisia (to tape heat waves) and Japan (fisheries) and Fiji (fire walkers). He was granted a private audience with the Dalai Lama, whom he taped pronouncing a prayer for the world.
When I phoned Viola's office to set up an interview, he was out receiving the medal of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters from the consul general of France.
All this is to say that Viola at 56 is one of the few living artists whose work is ubiquitous and ambitious enough to merit a backlash ("Closing down his sanctimonious bilge would help civilization," British art writer Matthew Collings has sniped). Simultaneously, it might make him the world's best hope for freeing art from jargon, and television from stupidity, and combining both into works that are mystical, human and moral--works that move critics to tears alongside your Uncle Pete. When other video artists were being purposely tedious or self-consciously ironic, here was Viola's 1983 installation "Room for St. John of the Cross": Amid images of mountains that shook and soundtracks that thundered, a glowing booth in the center of the room contained the whispered poetry of St. John, prisoner of the Inquisition, whose own mountain view, unaccountably, was golden and still.
Viola's art can be as epic and prophetic as "Going Forth By Day," involving 400 extras and depicting a pristine building that gets flooded from the inside, actors cascading on whitewater down the front steps, or as lyrical as the installation "He Weeps for You," in which your own projected image is held within a slowly forming, finally shattering droplet of water.
And in the afterglow of a Viola video, there's that sense of more-to-here-than-here, of worlds touching--sometimes with a sort of Roswell, New Mexico, documentary frame that makes you never quite sure if Viola found these mystic states or just FX'd them. In "Chott el-Djerid," shot partly in the Tunisian Sahara, there are highway mirages so hallucinatory that real Jeeps nose-dive into them, and then bob, and then go under one last time. I had to ask--and Viola told me the mirages caught on tape were entirely real. Meaning the photography wasn't a trick. Meaning the water the Jeeps were drowning in was unreal water.
A couple of those motifs--borderline states and drowning--are more or less Viola's constants. His other fixations are fish and trees. Trees, because in college he saw one clinging to a vertical slope, which seemed to reveal, like the ultimate slow motion, the struggle of life against impermanence.
Viola acquired the other fixations all at once, the story goes, when he was 6 and jumped off a raft into a lake without his inner tube. Somewhere between the certainty of drowning and the moment when the hand of an uncle fished him out, Viola says, he experienced one of the most magical intervals of his life--a happy calamity opening onto eternity. Not every 6-year-old gets to experience what every mystical tradition in history has sought to reproduce--a survivor's consciousness of "dying before you die"--but Viola had gotten lucky.
He likes to call himself a "privileged" artist, and indeed so much good choosing has accompanied his success that you have to either hate him or copy what he does. With his wife, photographer Kira Perov--an Australian with pensive eyes and red prayer beads that match his--he settled in Long Beach in 1981 (he wanted to be near both the Pacific and Death Valley), landing somehow in a two-story Spanish villa atop the only real hill in the city. From the sidewalk you can see a band of ocean, the spire of a church and plenty of trees.
Viola and Perov have two sons. Blake, 18, is the contemplative one who asked the Dalai Lama if murder is justified when the act will save others (in a word, sometimes). Andrei, 15, is the learner-by-doing who just had a Halo II party at the Signal Hill studio. When family life took over the house, Viola's business operations moved to the garage apartment, where Perov's workstation is ticketed floor-to-ceiling with sticky notes. When the sticky notes took over, Viola rented the small house across the street, where he reads and thinks and sequesters himself with his "huge inner life." There he smiles across a bare table by the front door set with a couple of small bowls of olives and nuts--it feels like a house arrest, with incense.
Here's Viola's routine: a season of reflective hibernation, then a season of shooting, then editing on deadline--a production cycle "ironically like Hollywood's." Generally, he lives with only one work in progress at a time, and he hates cellphones and e-mail. It's thanks to Perov (creative midwife, collaborator, producer of all the brochures, photographer of all the stills) that he gets to do life this way, Viola knows, and in case she doesn't know he knows, he swivels toward her to offer a series of frantic, embarrassed bows.
It was Perov who shoved him out of a hotel room in Japan when he was blocked on a commissioned work, turning the blockage into a road trip, and the road trip into his subject. ("She said, 'We're getting in the car and we're going!' " Viola explodes in laughter. "And as we're driving away, I'm yelling, 'But I'm not ready!' ") It was Perov who showed him that the gasps and bumps heard on his early tapes could be seen not as goofs, but as a presence behind the camera.
That has been a lifelong theme: goofs and impairments revealed to be genius, weaknesses turning out to be strengths. As a child, Viola could not always follow the plot of a movie; he was too transported by those gorgeous pictures. But he could sketch. At 4, he drew the imaginary planet Ogg, maybe not unlike the landscapes other 4-year-olds drew, except that Viola decided to tape the end back to the beginning and make it an existential loop.
Nowadays he invokes Heraclitus' dictum: Everything moves. And Buddha's: All life is change.
As a student at Syracuse University, Viola was frustrated by the limits of drawing and painting, which was more good timing; along came video, and it was Ogg all over again. Here was a medium that could capture not just an instant of transcendence, like the Old Masters did (and Viola was plenty drawn to them, still is), but also the instant before the miracle of transformation, and the instant after. And he could break the transformation into nanoseconds and watch its ghost as it moved across the land.
He noticed something else. Hollywood films had almost always been shot from the perspective of a third person; whereas the first-person POV had, for Viola, an Eastern fluidity that could accompany the viewer's inner voyage. Viola was getting into Zen now. He was getting that the secret to video was not about stalking life in order to pin something down, but about letting time flow, which he likened to "riding a wave in the sea."
Viola was reading so much Zen, in fact, that he introduced himself to a Zen master with the unintentionally hilarious one-liner: "Sensei, I have read many books on Zen." He was on a fellowship in Japan, pestering his hosts to teach him the art of Zen ink drawing. The fellowship director took Viola aside gently: Why not go to a temple and study Zen? "Then, everything you do will be Zen art."
That made sense to Viola. Art had to come second in life, but the artist could render art well if he made himself deep enough to see. Without which depth, virtuosity was nothing. Viola learned more about the artist's life, he has said, from the worldly contemplative St. Francis of Assisi than from any book about art.
All this reverence for religious traditions bothers a few critics (parts of "Going Forth By Day," said the New York Times' Grace Glueck, brought to mind Bunuel's satire "Simon of the Desert"), and Viola himself sounds strangely cryptic when discussing his specific spiritual devotions. "That's kind of a loaded term in the art world--when you mention the 's' word, all of a sudden eyes glaze over," he says when I first ask. Still, you can't help but notice how he's dined out on this modern taboo. Staging videos after Medieval frescoes, paying homage to master painters on plasma screens, Viola's been unlocking, almost by himself, a private tunnel to everything the postmodern age forgot: death and birth and wonder, and golden Renaissance skies.
And in any case, it's all one quest for Viola--reading a little of this mystic and a little of that saint, folding his spiritual-intellectual voyage into concepts for future works. "It's as much surfing as reading," he says. When he finds a good quote, he makes sure to transcribe it into his journal--because "writing the words down makes you live them, one by one." The quote will then raise some other interesting question, pointing Viola back to the bookcase, where the right volume will just appear, because there are elves, slipping him "just the right phrase at the right time."
Shouldn't everyone learn like this? Shouldn't every school teach like this? It's a frustration Viola shares. (He sent his boys to the Waldorf School in Costa Mesa, whose motto might be: Every Child Left Gloriously Behind. No one reads or adds till he's old enough to want to, and literature starts with myths and the Old Testament prophets, play-acted with swords.) Viola deplores "Sesame Street" too. "It's the reason we have all these PowerPoint presentations today, where the words are on the screen, and some brilliant scientist is saying the same words."
You would think that he never gets blocked. But he does. When his mother, Wynne Lee Viola, died in 1991, he had been blocked for two years before realizing she was his subject.
He'd been blocked and living off a grant from German TV to explore the desert yet again--his plan being not just to "take" from the landscape this time but to live there long term, to record how the desert would change him. And instead it freaked him out, standing in the middle of this incredible vast landscape and picking up this little instrument with this little eyepiece that seemed to cut out almost everything there was. The whole thing, the miracle of artistic ability, dried up on him.
Although not before he'd shot a lot of tape. One hundred and eighty-five 20-minute cassettes. He shot the crunch of footfalls in the sand, and the light that was always eerily too bright or too dim somehow to belong in the ordinary waking world. As well as those strange sandstone fingers at Zabriskie Point, like the hand of the Almighty. And he got the night sky to look like another permeable border, moving the camera to make the stars wriggle and flare, like fly-by spirits. Plus, night after night, the tiny headlights sliding across a distant highway, one IV globule at a time.
Watching some of this footage, you can start to feel almost hunted, or exiled, like an animal or a nomad or a shrub, stranded in the desert since God knows when--you feel a sort of amnesia that might actually be a more ancient memory returning. But Viola had no clue yet what to do with the tapes.
Then the call came from his father that his mother was dying. And as a private goodbye, Viola found himself wanting to film her. He made a reel just to keep on his shelf: Her respiration in the sickbed, her beatific face in the casket. Small children romping in the parlor. This was how an artist dealt with loss.
Shortly afterward, the German producer demanded a rough cut of the desert project. And Viola went off to the editing room, but he kept finding himself pulled away to the footage of his mom. All at once a dam burst, or a dividing wall fell, and Viola knew what he'd really been working on.
"The Passing," as he titled it, is a nocturne that jumps from footage of Viola's own uneasy sleep (in bed behind one wakeful eye), to eerie desert (as if dreaming), and then back strikingly to bed each time there's a cough or a start. It also includes a night drive through Belmont Shore that feels the way only a dream about driving can feel (like a bed on wheels), and a long pan of the curios on a friend's grandmother's shelf. ("It's practically a principle of art," says Viola, "how you can stand before something, the lowly object or the grand, or a utensil from Babylonia, and it touches you.") Of course, the video also intercuts the coma and open casket of an elegant old woman, whom I'd assumed to be an actress until Viola told me what he'd done.
What this proved to Viola was that a project had its own secret destination. "A lot of what making art is, is just being open, and empty. And putting yourself in the right place for things to, literally, come together."
He had only gone to the desert. He hadn't meant to film a sad, beautiful study of the passing away of mountains and people, but Viola had gotten lucky.
It's a more mature viola now. An artist at the height of his craft. The works are both simpler and huger, and more commanding--more like masterworks. Sometimes they're crosses between the Renaissance and "The Towering Inferno."
For 2004's "The Tristan Project," Viola projected four hours of visual accompaniment to Wagner's opera that all but rivaled Creation. (A collaboration with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Peter Sellars, "Tristan and Isolde" will return to Disney Hall in April.) Consider the "Fire Woman" sequence, in which a robed figure stands before an embankment of fire that looks (and sounds) 10 miles high. After several motionless minutes, she topples forward like grief personified--and the mirrored plane of the floor through which she falls is revealed to be the surface of water. Ever so gradually, its night-blue fingers interlace with the fire's brilliant lava, eventually drowning it with both color and sound.
(Later, in "Isolde's Ascension," Isolde rises without warning in a rush of droplets, plucked skyward like a spirit or a doll, the fishtail hem of her gown translucent white.)
After a project like that, if you're Bill Viola, you set your sights a little lower for a while. "A page has turned just recently," he says across the table in his study. He hasn't seen a new work from concept to completion for close to two years, and this eats at him, so he's begun a series of "off-the-cuff video poems," culling old footage and making triptychs on LCD screens. "The two main examples of multiple screens," Viola points out happily, "are in video-making and in late Medieval-Renaissance altarpieces."
It's like something else he told the kids from Art Center: After all these centuries, artists finally have a seemingly limitless palette. "We were just kidding about it at Thanksgiving with my brother. I said, 'Bob, I could take this table as we see it now, I could take all these dirty plates and everything, I could put it in a crate, ship it to my gallery in New York, set it up as you see it here, put it in that gallery, and put my name on it. And people would come in, the art connoisseurs of New York, and the first thing they would do would be to make the effort to understand it. That's the kind of incredible opportunity there is right now in the art world.' "
At the same time, freedom can be overwhelming, along with the power of his tools to raise his standards, and occasionally Viola succumbs. Not that that's a bad thing.
"One of the most important things for me in terms of my working method is doubt. I get very insecure about my ideas. And I don't say insecure in kind of a paranoid way. I mean just: Are they good enough? Is this the right thing to do? I really beat myself up over that. But at a certain point, I'll have these deadlines. And then on a few occasions--the most dramatic was the one in Japan, where we drove for two and a half months, and made this incredible piece, basically, not knowing where I was going and what I was doing. Of course, you find the path in the editing. But it's also a physical journey. And that gave me great confidence that I could go forward when things didn't feel right.
"Because ultimately, what's going to matter in your life, the most important gift you have, the most important gift you're given, is the gap between your abilities and your desires. And a lot of people just stop at the edge. They see the gap and they don't try to leap across it. And other fools just--keep going!" He laughs, a happy, ominous chuckle. "And sometimes it doesn't work. So it doesn't work. That, a lot of times, is the difference between the real masters and the kind of midrange people. To learn how to work from a position of weakness."
It's a little insane, honestly, how an artist lives--how the daily choices he makes amount to something like planned accidents, itineraries grounded only in faith. He's a kind of shopkeeper, I think, transacting business with a larger, more lasting, reflecting-pool world that just happens to share its physical coordinates with this one. And this is about how one important artist has stayed connected to a vision of what matters--although even just to say so sounds like syrup, and sounds as if it's diminishing the Art part of it, so lost are we, sometimes, in our flimsy age and its fear of beauty.
Viola's vision is not, on the surface, a recognizably "L.A." one. His settings are so consciously mythic and universal (instead of mythic and local), he finds them anywhere. But there was this one time in Cerritos. And like so many of Viola's best stories, it starts with being blocked. "As I get to be from time to time. And I told myself: You're gonna go to a shopping mall. Which would be the last place I would ever want to go to. Why would I want to go to a shopping mall? I would want to go to the ocean, I would want to go to the desert. The forest. But I forced myself to go to a shopping mall to look for the vision. First time in my life.
"And because I had this video camera," Viola says, leaning across his table, "it literally is just this surrogate form of perception that makes no value judgment on things. It's just an eye, looking. So I just walked around this mall, half the time not even looking through the lens, on auto focus, I just moved it wherever, however I felt like moving, whatever caught my eye. Got stopped by the security guard a couple of times.
"When I brought this stuff back--it was like a revelation. I saw these faces, the kind of pathos on the people walking through the mall, and the joy, and the kids, and the lights coming from the shops."
The footage went into his 1992 installation "Slowly Turning Narrative," which is in LACMA's collection: a 12-by-8-foot mirror rotating on a shaft from floor to ceiling, catching and flinging images from projectors at either end of the room. Viola also recorded images of the L.A. County Fair, with children on a carousel, spinning. "And of course this mirror's turning at the same time, so when that scene gets projected, it's pretty amazing. It's like the wheel of life, going around.
"That was a big breakthrough--to realize that the vision didn't happen in some special, rarefied place. You don't have to fast for five days to get there, or go out to the most pristine, beautiful place you can imagine. You can go to the Cerritos mall. And if you're open, in the right way," Viola says, "the curtain will part, and you'll see through it."