Late Nights at the Whitney
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ADAM WEINBERG: Andrew Solomon has stated: “Despite the playful techno-wizardry, the results are emotional, communicative, intimate and moral.” Viola’s work focuses on universal experiences: birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness, and have roots in eastern and western art as well as spiritual traditions including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian Mysticism. Viola’s practice is based on and deeply engaged with what we might call the poetics of ecstasy. It is about finding grace in everyday life and how we can try to find methods, images, sound, and experiences that point us toward a transcendental experience. He isn’t interested in provoking-providing us with answers, but rather, imposing provocative questions. The Whitney has long believed in and supported that Viola’s singular vision. We featured his work in six biennials, beginning in 1975, which is now a long time ago. When video was still a nascent art form. In fact, in 1975 when people talked about video art most people didn’t know what people were talking about. The Whitney acquired the work The Greeting in 1991 and in 1997 then director David Ross organized a major survey show, Bill Viola: A Twenty-Five Year Survey, which was the largest show mounted to date of any video artist. It was on two floors here at the Whitney Museum. That exhibition traveled for two years to museums in U.S. and Europe and in 2001 the Whitney teamed up with the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Tate Modern to acquire Five Angels for the Millennium—a major installation piece and this was the first ever joint acquisition made by the Whitney Museum which gives you a sense of the importance of Bill’s work to this Museum. Bill has been included in numerous shows around the world. In 1995 he represented the U.S. in the 46th Venice Biennale in conjunction with the most recent Venice Biennale in 2007. He created Ocean Without a Shore for the Church of San Gallo which was a magnificent, intimate piece that actually, the chapel was probably just not much bigger than this area around the stage which people lined up through Venice, and people would have to follow the line to figure out where they were going to go see this piece. You’ll see some excerpts of some of the aspects of that piece this evening. His exhibition Hatsu Yume in Tokyo in 2006, 2007, was one of the most comprehensive presentations of his works ever. There were almost half a million people who tended that exhibition. I also want to acknowledge this evening and welcome Kira Perov. Since they met in 1977 when Perov invited Viola to present his videos in Melbourne, Australia, she has been Bill’s foremost collaborator, managing the productions of all his videos and installations. They’re also I think still married. Viola’s awards and honors, of which there are many, include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, first Medienkunstpreis in Germany, he was inducted into the American academy of Arts and Sciences, and recently he received the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts from MIT. I would also like to mention for those of you who have not already seen it, there’s an exhibition currently on view at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea entitled Bodies of Light, which I think is on view for another few weeks. Um, just a quick aside before I um, introduce Bill. As Bill and I have known each other for some time and we both have an abiding passion for the Three Stooges, of all things. And I have to say in my email correspondence with the Education Department who worked so hard to put this event together tonight, when they saw Bill and I exchanging e-mails about the Three Stooges they were getting very very concerned that, in fact, we were gonna spend the whole night discussing Three Stooges. But Bill did, as a nod to this evening, he decided he was gonna talk about—he was gonna say that this would be called a Reflections on his video work or a Night with Mo, Curly and Larry. So, anyway, welcome Bill Viola.
BILL VIOLA: Let’s get serious here. Here are some serious people in the room . . . what I’m supposed to do with this. Ok, I got a lot of things here I don’t know what I’ll get to, but might sorta help me guide my talk tonight. I’m really really happy to be here, and really glad that we’re able to change the venue of this place. I know there are some issues with line of sight, we apologize for that, but, it really was the best way to get this number of people (5:00) into the lecture, into the talk. Which wasn’t—we would have had to have far less people if we would have put it up in the theater so just bear with us and you have an extra screen over there and you’ll hopefully see everything. I also wanna thank Adam and the Whitney for inviting me to do this talk; as Adam has explained, it’s a very special place for me in my career. I’ve been associated with it for a long time. And I think it’s one of the greatest museums on the planet. And also I want to acknowledge Kira too. Adam acknowledged her; I just want to say how important she is for me spiritually, emotionally, mentally, intellectually, and every way that I can imagine. We’ve raised a family together and the life journey is still going and changing and transforming for us and I’m gonna talk about that actually tonight. So let me just say one thing at the onset. The reason why we are all here right now is because each and every one of us at one time in our past has met someone that has given us a helping hand. When one practices as a contemporary artist today one is taught to go alone, one on one with the absolute, to hammer out their work, to do battle with themselves in a place called the studio. And I’m gonna talk about studio art a little bit later in my talk for the artists who are here, but actually for all of us. It is a special thing to be alone. But, I don’t really believe anymore that we’re meant to go this alone. I mean, even the shaman in Siberia who had to prove themselves and basically, graduated from the shaman school by going out into the wilderness for anywhere from three days to two weeks—and we’re talking horrible, difficult, dangerous wilderness where a lot of them didn’t return. But to go out into the emptiness to the edge of death, be able to take the knowledge from that and come back. That’s the more extreme example of what I’m saying. But, they too had teachers. And when they came back they became teachers. And that is our task as human beings. To pass on the knowledge. I don’t own my videos. I mean I might have paid for them and they’re involved in the economic system, but ultimately they’re not mine. They’re something that came through me as a complete gift and it continues to move. Its moving out to you, to this evening, what you are, what you are and who you are is coming into me and I can feel that and that kind of passage of things continually moving and flowing is really the essence of who we are. I just wanna read, uh, I thought I’d start with a few death poems. I’ve been reading Japanese death poems for the past twenty years. I think they’re some of the most extraordinary literature on the planet and this is a book called Japanese Death Poems edited with a commentary by Yoel Hoffman. It’s a wonderful introduction to Japanese poetry. Death poems are known in Japanese as jisei. The jisei tradition, practiced by Zen monks and some haiku poets who at the verge of death, at the end of their life when they’re ready to take their last breath, they create a work of art. Could be one mark on the page, could be a multipage poem, but they actually are able to maintain consciousness up until that last moment when they meet the absolute and go on to—as far as the Buddhists understand it—to the next life. So let me just read a few of these to get the evening started off. This is from Dairin Soto. He died on the twenty-seventh day of the first month in 1568. Here’s his death poem:
My whole life long I’ve sharpened my sword
And now, face to face with death
I unsheathe it, and lo—
The blade is broken.
This one is from a man named Ingo who died on the twenty-first day of the eighth month in 1281:
Three and seventy years
I’ve draw pure water from the fire—
Now I become a tiny bug.
With a touch of my body
I shatter all worlds.
This is one of my favorites by Gesshu Soko. (10:00) He died on the tenth day of the first month in 1696:
Breathing in, breathing out
Moving forward, moving back
Like two arrows meeting in flight
In the midst of nothingness
There is a road that goes to my true home.
It’s a very beautiful one. And this is a good one by Kokei Sochin. He died on the seventeenth day of the first month in 1597:
For over sixty years
I have often cried shit to no avail.
And now, while dying,
Once more to cry shit
Won’t change a thing.
That’s beautiful. And here is, let’s see. I’ll read you another one. Yeah, this is Shumpo Soki who died on the first day of the first month in 1496. That’s just after Columbus discovered America.
My sword leans against the sky with its polished blade
I’ll behead the Buddha and all of his saints
Let the lightning strike where it will
And here is a very very special one, actually two of them. Taigen Sofu died in the second month, 1555.
I raise the mirror of my life up to my face-sixty years
With a swing I smash the reflection
The world as usual, all in its place
This is one of my favorites. It’s by a guy named Takuan who I’ll talk about a little later in the talk. He was an extraordinary person. He was a scholar, a painter, a poet. He was close to the court. He was admired by the rulers and the common people. He refused to regard anyone as his disciple because he didn’t consider himself a teacher. At the age of thirty-seven he was appointed head monk of Daitokuji Temple and he hated having power and authority so he abandoned the temple after three days. Getting the highest honor possible—you know president of Harvard—and he leaves after three days. He turned down honorary titles. He was invited by the shogun to serve under him and he refused. He was banished because of this to the distant hills and when he came back to the city he was invited to come back into the shoguns court, and he said that he preferred the mountains and had no desire to return back to the filthy and crowded halls of the palace. Lying on his death bed Takuan refused to—at first refused—to write a death poem. At last he gave into the entreaties of those surrounding him, took up his brush and drew the character for dream. When he finished, he threw the brush down and died. Takuan had requested beforehand that his body be burned on a mountain, that no memorial service be held, that no tombstone be put up for him.
All of these poems I just read you were written on the various Zen practitioners and artists death beds. So they literally would create the last stroke in the poem they were working on, put down the brush and keel over. I found that very, somehow, very moving. That one could maintain that kind of focused awareness. So here something—I just pulled some notes out from my files, I think they will hopefully weave together in the right way. Here’s something I wrote about eight years ago and I call it the Miracle of Museums cause I spent a lot of my life in museums and I think they’re really extraordinary places. Somehow we just become broader and deeper inside ourselves when we see the work of those who have gone before who are no longer with us. And yet, we’re able to experience what they did, which is the basic essence of art. So this is a kind of a little list of little things that have to do with art. So, first off: creativity exists in all human beings, it transcends time and place and it arises from the practice of making something new from something old. Art is the universal language of mankind. I firmly believe that, especially needed in this day and age of conflict and strife and misunderstanding. It is kept alive by the human presence within all material creations, including video and computers. All art is contemporary art and is born in radical new ideas. Michelangelo was twenty-four when he did the Pieta and the Vatican (15:00). Twenty-four years old. With new ideas, new radical ideas about perspective and uh, space. Artistic tradition is always present even in seemingly non-traditional times. If you think of the impressionists who break from tradition, is in fact a tradition. The Zen Buddhists in the fifteenth century were breaking from tradition. So it’s a dance between focusing and moving forward together in a unified way defined way and then this kind of chaotic meltdown that always yields new life somehow and new ideas. The path for visual artists stretches back unbroken to the cave walls of forty thousand years ago and probably beyond. The inner essence of art is independent of media, old or new; it’s the pathway of the image, not its material container which the art historians catalogue and discuss, that is the true eternal history of art. And I believe that is a living thing, like our DNA is living. I also wrote down at one point about five years ago: artistic talent at its roots is independent of class, culture, gender, race, and age. Think about that in this complicated, conflicted world. That’s kind of beautiful. It is both an equalizer and a separator. Everybody is creative. Not everybody can work on the level of a Rembrandt, but nonetheless they’re creative. And right now for you artists out there, we are living in an extraordinary time unprecedented in the history of art. Right now you have the widest range of media styles, techniques, language to express your inner vision that has ever existed in the history of art making on this planet. And keep in mind, at many different times in history people have died for their work. People have died because they refuse to retract the forbidden images that they made that were put into a culture that was very closed and could not understand them. So the path of art history is littered with bodies. Both whom were persecuted for the art that they made and also personally took their own lives because they could not reconcile the gap between what they felt inside, what they can imagine in their heart, and what they can do with their hands. The difference between their dreams and their abilities. And all of us deal with that. You know, you can have the most incredible thing going on in your mind but if you can’t get it out you jump this gap of emptiness that exists between every one of us here, even your lovers, your closest companions in life. It’s a little gap of emptiness. If you can’t, you know, bridge that gap, you know, it’s very sad. It’s a tragedy. It’s one of the great tragedies. So let me talk a little bit about technology. Technology comes—the word technology comes from an ancient Greek word which is called techni, and techni means trick in ancient Greece. I think that’s pretty cool. Anybody that’s ever gone, tried to go down to Best Buy and tried to buy some kind of some kind of new plasma screen or some kind of video thing knows exactly what I’m talking about. It is definitely a trick and it’s complicated and it’s still getting complicated when we want it to be easy. So, it’s really neat to think that this all started with a trick by a guy named Prometheus, who is one of the trickster figures in ancient times. Prometheus had the ability to travel between the material world and the spiritual world, so he could go up to Mt. Olympus, hang out with Zeus and the gods, and come down to earth and hang out with us. So one day when he was up there he thought he’d do a little trick and he secretly stole fire from the sacred fire pit, brought it down to earth and he gave it to us. Well that was pretty good. People were super excited, they were very happy. They treated him like a god. So they could warm their homes, they could cook their food, they could illuminate the night. This was a big thing. But, because it’s a techni, a trick, it could also burn their finger, it could burn heir house down; it could burn the whole forest down.
(20:00) So, all technology, no matter how hard we try, has unintended consequences. And sometimes artists use those unintended consequences, we call them mistakes, to actually make great works if you’re open to that particular mistake and you don’t consider it to be an error. Huston Smith, a great great scholar of world religion I’ve been reading for many many years, said that this completely changed my life in one of the introductions to his books the Encyclopedia of World Religion. He said that the two forces that are most affected, human life and human beings, both inner and outer, are technology and revelation. Technology and revelation. That really struck me very deeply. That’s like putting two things that don’t normally go together—physical material thing and a completely ethereal conceptual inner feeling thing. And yet I think that’s very much what today’s age is about. You know, you can think physical-metaphysical about that pairing of those two words—technology, revelation—and you can think body and soul; you can think hardware and software. We are living in an age where the material and the spiritual are meeting. And it’s not necessarily pretty, at times, but it is pretty interesting in general. And at one point in the early 1980s when I was using video for—at that time I started—I first touched a video camera in 1970 so this is about fifteen years into my video career. I was looking at this image on the monitor, it was black and white, low resolution by today’s standards, and I realized after all these years I wasn’t making perceptions. You know I wasn’t doing what we’re doing right now, looking at each other through the dim light here in this hall; which is an immediate sort of live image if you wanna put it in those terms. But what the image appeared—what was appearing on my monitors for all those years, and that I finally realized had more to do with a memory than a perception. And it’s not just cause you can store it and record it on tape, but it’s just the feeling of it. It was disembodied; it was a view of yourself from outside yourself. We did a lot of things in the early video art, era of feedback loops and stuff like that. Giving yourself an image of yourself while you’re alive and living, at the same moment. You didn’t even need tape. It was pretty exciting. And so, ultimately, I mean after now, after many more years of doing this, I really feel that technology is itself, I think, in our destinies.
I think it’s—I see technology as a merger of human beings of those two essential elements. You think of titanium legs and artificial hearts and its really beginning to become part of our bodies—literally and metaphorically. And I think that is going to lead to something truly profound further down the road. And I think also at the same time it is not coincidental that in this day and age right now, we are describing a human being in the form of a code instead of the pistons and the pulleys of the mechanical age. It’s now modeled on a code: DNA. And at the same time we have within our dwellings as an intrical device in world culture now, all around the world, this digital machine which also, guess what, runs on a code. On ones and zeros. Now to my mind that’s not coincidental that is all happening at the end of the nineteen-twentieth century, the beginning of the twenty-first century. I don’t think that’s coincidental at all. And it’s really causing now, in this transitional age—I really believe we’re gonna come, I hope I see this in my lifetime, but what’s coming down the pike? Roaring down on us now in this massive digital, technological revolution. I don’t think it’s unprecedented. Probably the Industrial Revolution was the last time that we’re gonna see changes on this scale and scope. And I personally think they’re gonna play out for another thirty, forty, fifty years until we finally see what the nature of this whole thing is cause it is huge. But in the meantime we have these little sort of bumps and little interesting things such as, you know, I don’t know if you saw that cartoon in the New Yorker where the two dogs sitting in front of the computer and one— (25:00) the big dog’s teaching the little dog how to use the internet, how to go online with keyboard and he says to the other one: “and the really great thing about the internet is they don’t even know you’re a dog.” So, and that’s really beautiful because, you know, there’s this whole thing happening right now with self-identity and persona that’s being in the midst of an incredible transformation, I mean the digital age the individual is the society. When you go out from your computer screen you’re going point to point to someone else, directly. And then you can multiply that and you can send it out to millions of people. But it’s coming right from you; everybody is the center of their own universe. The individual is the society and there are real moral and ethical issues with that, you know, if we’re that connected then everybody else online there better well have you best interest in mind, and they better well have, you know, some sense of morals and ethics because the potential for mayhem is really really great.
It just takes one person today—one flick of the finger—this finger here, with this finger I can nuke St. Petersburg, you know. I mean it’s really like Archimedes with that big stone and the stick. So the connectivity is great, but it’s a very tenuous balance to my mind, and I think its humanism and humanistic issues, social issues, and ethics in rules are gonna become really a new essential way forward all together. And then I just think about the internet, I look at all of you right here tonight, ok. We think of the infinite as being this new thing, appeared sometime in the 1980s, but it’s not actually. Everything human beings make comes from something else. There are models and prototypes for everything and then models and prototypes for those models and prototypes. So, what is the internet for me? The internet is the thing running this room right now. And that is—I see all these faces looking at me, except for the ones behind the posts, I see them all looking at me. I’m looking at you; sometimes they’re looking at each other. I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know your family, I don’t know your background, where you come from, but we’re sharing this moment together. This is like a kind of a crossroads where all the freeways meet. And we pass through the center of those crossroads and we go out again. So the internet is really . . . the main model for the internet is the social world, is literally the root system that begins in this room right now at this moment and goes out in time and space to your relatives who are alive, and you know, at this moment to what you have to do tomorrow—big project you’re working on, you gotta do that or you gotta move next week or your grandmother’s sick. And it goes backwards into your family history. Back into Italy, into France, into Germany, into China, into Brazil, anywhere people come from in this age of-of transportation and communication. Um, it’s a really powerful thing; I can almost visualize it sometime in my mind. It looks very similar to the blood vessels in our blood. If you go to the James Cohan Gallery on twenty-sixth Street in Chelsea and you see my show there, um, you’ll see a piece called Bodies of Light where a light—a bright light is passing down a male and female body standing side by side knee-deep in water, and each time it passes down you see another layer of the skin revealed until in the end nothing’s left. I think that nothingness is becoming more our model of how to be in the world where you’re a virtual presence. Then that model that I used to have in grade school with a little visible man where you can see all the organs and you can take them out and I remember doing that in class with my teacher. I was fascinated with it. But what’s going on today is a lot more profound because it’s modeling ideas. The art of the future is not something that you have to shine a light on. I think about that a lot about my medium. It’s like stained glass; it already has light in it. And the word modeling thoughts, not actions, symbols of the real world, not the material objects, behaviors, processes, movements, transformations—these are not static things. These are energy fields. They’re more related to a spark than a stump. They’re in motion. They’re in movement. It’s a living system. And I think when these two sparks, when this spark of the, you know . . . well right now the neurons in my brain, as I’m speaking to you are firing electricity at the same speed of light, you know, and the human brain runs on four watts of energy—same as the nightlight in your bathroom (30:00). I know some friends actually who are running on about half that amount. But, nonetheless, there’s still that energy somewhere. But it is really profound that we have this electrical system that is now having such an impact on us. And you know, Buddha, when he realized that he was becoming worshipped by his followers, was getting really concerned that people were treating him like a god and he said, “Don’t worship me, look at my teachings.” And he gave them this beautiful example which I think is very very important and very apropos for technology and that is, he said: “Think of my teachings like a raft. You use it to get to the other side of the river. One you’re over there, only the idiot would keep carrying the boat around.” It’s just so beautiful. You know, use these things. Just use them. Use them to get somewhere where you need to go and then you just put them aside.
Its ok, you know. They’ve transported you over to the other side. We had the good fortune—Kira and I and our two teenage boys—to visit the Dalai Lama in 2005 in Dharamsala and I went with questions. We asked the boys to have their questions too and we spent about thirty-five minutes with him. It was in the winter, not a lot of people around. It’s one of the things I think we never forget. It was an extraordinary experience. And I asked him about technology. And I told him I use this media that I myself am ambivalent about. I see my medium as a cause of a lot of suffering in the world through either propaganda, misrepresentation, misinformation, just clutter and chatter. And I was talking to him about that. And he stopped me. He said, “You know, the problem is not the technology.” I said, “Oh, what do you mean your holiness?” And he said, “Well,” he said, “to my mind all technology is neutral.” He said, “If I have a fork, if I have love in my heart, I will feed you nutritious food. If I have hatred in my heart, I will try to kill you.” I thought that’s pretty amazing. So he said, “It’s the intention of the user that determines the technology.” You know, you can use a gun to shoot a hole in a rock where a spring is to get water out of it if you’re dying of thirst. You know, even though some of these things are certainly made to do, you know, nasty unspeakable things with. But seeing the Dalai Lama—the fact that we know about the Dalai Lama in this age of communication tells us that again that technology’s neutral. Because if you get a message from his holiness with that kind of deep spirituality in it that can help you in your life, that’s really beautiful. Instead of getting some creepy message from, you know, some terrorist somewhere. So this system we have is bringing us closer together whether we want to or not. Kira and I had a really great experience early on in our life together, in 1980 actually, got a grant to go to Japan. And I wanna talk a little bit about east and west because I think that is another place where our future lies. And I think this is obvious in not only in terms of commerce, not only in terms of culture, not only in terms of political systems, but also for art and artists’ presence. The presence of Asian artists now in the global art world is extraordinary. It’s absolutely extraordinary. And Kira and I lived in Japan for a year and a half and we have been there many times. We have dear friends there. And it’s a place that we feel very comfortable with, and I think that connection, especially between east and west, you have to realize that a country like Japan never had the Renaissance. They came into the modern world in 1854. Bang. You know, there were trains, there were you know cars. I mean it was amazing how quickly they came into the modern world. They had been in a feudal system with a shogun, you know, for 250 years isolated from the world. So, there are these really interesting analogies when you realize that before the Renaissance the east and west were absolutely on common ground. You know, it wasn’t until after the Renaissance where the whole nature of the traditions diverged.
So, anyway, so we went over to Japan and I probably had the best and most profound experience of my life. It changed my life literally being there. And one of the ways it changed my life, which I will tell you about, is . . . I am looking for the page. (35:00) Here it is. So I was in, Kira and I were in the Suntory Art Museum in Tokyo and we had our guide books and we were seeing an exhibit of bodhisattvas. For those of you who don’t know Buddhism, bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who achieved enlightenment—the goal of all Buddhists is to become enlightened—and yet when they got up there to the proverbial pearly gates when they can be freed from the cycle of suffering of multiple lifetimes, they chose to not take the prize and come back and help us. A little bit like the saints in the Christian religion and any people who try to help others instead of themselves. So there was a row of these incredibly beautiful medieval statues—life size—and we came in, we’re sorta looking, we’re looking we’re reading our books we had about the lineage of these things and then where they came from and so on. And while we’re standing there looking at them, this little old lady comes in and elbows us outta the way and walks up to the first one and—she’s got all these scarves on her arm—she walks up to the first one, she takes a prayer scarf and she lays it around its shoulders. And you know these statues are, a lot of them were posed like this, so she lays it across the arms. She bowed to it. She went to the next one. She went down the row of all fourteen laying these beautiful silk scarves—white silk scarves—on them. And then she turned and very reverently bowed very very low to the entire row of fourteen bodhisattvas, turned around and left. I looked at Kira, I was like in shock, you know. First of all, you’re not supposed to touch the art. That’s what I was taught. So here’s this lady comes along and just really touches the art. And the thing I think that really really got me after I thought about it later was me with my book and my intellectual knowledge trying to figure this thing out with my mind.
I felt afterwards that I was like a person who had just received a computer, opened the box, first time, first computer, laid out the keyboard, the monitor, the hard drive, you know, the tower and uh, admired how it looked there on the table and never bothered to plug it in. Never bothered to plug it in. And we do that a lot with art. We do that a lot with art. So she told me and taught me how to turn on the art. Ananda Coomaraswamy, the great Indian scholar, brought his collection over to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1918 and it’s still there today. He had this great thing. He said: “Museums are the place we put the things we forgot how to use.” Wow! Peter Sellers once told me, the great contemporary director, he said: “You know when you go in an art museum and you see these polished wooden floors and perfectly clean white pristine walls, the only conclusion one can draw is that this must be a hospital and the works must be ill.” Because if you go to places like India and you go to places in Asia it’s not all clean and nice. It’s funky and shabby and everything’s used. Statues are worn because people are kissing them. The Kaaba in Mecca has a meteorite imbedded in the corner of it and all those pilgrims that go do the hajj to Mecca every year kiss the stone and so many have been there right now. This big giant iron meteorite is indented like this with love. It’s eroded by love. And it’s about, you know, twelve inches deep now. The kisses wearing the stone away. It’s extraordinary. So I think we have to use the art more. The other examples, we had a great opportunity to be with a zen teacher who told us several amazingly beautiful things I just wanna share with you. She’s getting real close now. One day he just told us, his name was Tanaka, Dian Tanaka, we called him Tanaka Sensei. One day we were sitting around and he just blurts out, “Buddha was not the [Inaudible] . . . you know if you say that in my religion you know, they’ll burn you [inaudible] . . . about the head man. I mean that was really shocking and then I thought about it later and I thought: how profound. How profound because Buddha was a failure from his father’s perspective. He was a rich son, lived in a huge palace, had everything he needed and he was real—he could do anything he wanted he had the best teachers, everything. (40:00) And then he, you know, he gave it all up. He just left. Just walked right away from it. Didn’t inherit the family business. A little bit like Saint Francis in Italy. And just walked off. So, that incompleteness is really really important and I never really thought about that too much. If you think about it, biologically we are incomplete. Two human beings of the opposite sex, you know, it takes two people with opposite, with different treasures in them to make a new life, you know. I mean, psychologically we need each other so much we can’t really exist alone unless you’re like some meditating monk in a cave somewhere. You know, socially we need each other. So this combination of opposites is really really important. The other thing our teacher told us is, “You must learn to work from a position of weakness.” It’s one of the greatest things anybody ever told me. You must learn to work from a position of weakness.
So when you see, you know, the masterpieces which I remember studying in school—they always wanna show us masterpieces you know. Masterpieces is like Edmond Hillary standing on top of Everest with a flag. Tells you nothing about the effort, about the con, about the plan to get up on that mountain. It’s just some heroic picture. That’s kinda how we learn art in a lot ways these days. Like what I wanna know as a working artist, I wanna know what crampons he used. I wanna know what jacket he had, how did he stay warm, why did he make the mistake to go on the north fork first before he had to backtrack and go to the other one. That’s what I wanna know. That’s valuable. It’s about practice, not theory. It’s about not figuring out the end before you get there, but the end is some kind of unknown which draws you on. So, I think we’re just about . . . I should complete this right now. So, let me take you to one more idea.
I wanna just leave you with one thing before we go into a conversation here. Two things actually. Both come from Hindu culture and one of them is the idea of, for artists out there and for anybody really who does any kind of work. Like I said, we’re all creative. The other thing my Zen teacher said to me which no art professor has ever told me in my career of being a student. He said the most important thing when you go in to do your work is not, you know, what you’re doing, not how you’re doing it, but why you’re doing it. That’s the most important thing. So where to put the self he said, where do you put yourself when you’re in our workshop? Where do you put the self? Then I came across a beautiful tradition in Hindu culture called darshan. And darshan in Hindu culture means seeing—it means seeing basically. But there is a spiritual inner interpretation of that word which means seeing and being seen by god. So if a craftsman is working day in and day out in their studio and they’re working alone weaving, or creating clay figures or whatever they’re doing, the same kinda work over and over again for days and weeks and months and years getting better and better, perfecting themselves until the image migrates from their head to their hands—that’s where you wanna be. It’s gotta be in your hands. And this idea of being seen by god. Now whether you’re religious or not or how you interpret religion, you can substitute the word god for almost anything—anything that’s outside of yourself that’s greater than you, beyond you the individual. And so the idea that someone’s actually watching you when you’re alone is a very very profound thing I think. And we get these feelings all the time, and again you might be a total atheist but sometimes you just get that feeling that you feel something greater than yourself is in the room with you. I’ve had that doing some of my pieces, not very often but I’ve been blessed a few times to have some really powerful experiences creating my art. And you know, when you think about it when someone’s watching, that’s the time when you’re gonna do your best work. Your very best work. And when there’s nothing to hide, you know, when there’s nothing to hide there’s less chance to fall into error so you don’t sort of change something and do some little tricky thing. And it’s the time for selfless action I think. So, let me just leave you with that and . . . right we’re probably moving on in time. Ok. Time keeps going.
(45:00) Anyway, that’s what somebody said about photography once. I forget who it was they said: “You know when you take a photograph, photography doesn’t stop time, the time keeps going and that’s why you can look at your grandmother’s wedding photo and why your children can see just some old lady with strange clothes on and people with funny cars behind her on the street. And the grandmother looks at that photo and she sees her wedding in the present moment. You know, so the idea that we can stop time is a gift. And I think video for me, the beauty of it is doesn’t stop time in short amounts. The tape . . . when we just had my family reunion this weekend we played back a video that we shot like twenty years ago, both parents are gone now and we see them talking and walking in my aunt’s backyard you know, laughing and it’s just so profound and so beautiful.
So anyway, I think, do you wanna put on that other video and transition into the conversation part? Ok. So Richard, do you have . . . This is a piece called Fire Woman, I’m just gonna show you the beginning part because we’re gonna continue talking. This is from the Tristan and Isolde opera and it’s an image in the mind’s eye of a dying man.
Ok Richard, you can just start loading that please gradually and we’re gonna start our conversation.
AW: That was lovely Bill, thank you.
BV: Hello, how you doin? Nice to see you again
AW: Nice to see you.
AW: I have sixty questions and only twenty minutes to ask them all, so maybe I’ll just ask all the questions. But Bill, you talked about how we’re so fortunate in a way, for artists to be alive at this time because they can choose from any kind of style any kind of technique. Why video for you? I mean, you know, at a certain point you began and stuck with it.
BV: Yeah. Um, hm. Well, I remember actually the first time I saw video. They brought it into my ninth grade art class. This was in the spring of 1969 and just one small black and white monitor and a little square boxy TV and they set up the camera and they pointed it at all of us and we saw our faces on this camera (50:00) like I described earlier and it was of course chaotic. The whole class, the structure in the class, the authority structure in the class completely broke down, which I think also has a lot to do with why in certain ways how culture has been affected by this medium since that time. But I just remembered it was the image, it was the quality of the image, it was the feeling of this light. And video, you know, the old video formats before digital, the analog formats were scan lines, and there were 525 scanning lines in one frame, so that means that one frame was a thirtieth of a second. So that means in one thirtieth of a second, 525 scans are going through. So this thing was vibrating at an incredible rate for an object that was simulating consistency and constancy. When, in reality it was just flashing electrons going by so fast that it just blows your mind.
And there was something that drew me to that image, and then when I got to college, they had started already workshops in the student center, not in the academic department. The art school didn’t figure out video for another four years after that. But, it was in the student union as a kind of recreational fun thing for students and I went over there to check it out and I never looked back. I could feel the future right away. I can’t even describe it, but I’m sure young people who came of age in the internet age probably have the same feeling of when you first look at that computer and you just fell into it. You just saw infinity. Infinite possibilities.
AW: But was the character of the medium itself that you were drawn to?
BV: Yeah . . .
AW: Quality of the image and that sense of the time.
BV: Yeah like its kinda ontological—had some ontological presence that was unique. I’d never seen an object be like that before. And then I think I was even more moved when, I forget the name of the teacher, when he pushed this button and turned it off. That was pretty profound. And then today any—you know this from when we’ve worked together—you know at the end of the day when you turn off my work in a museum, guess what, there’s nothing there. You know, we shut down the installations like when I’ve had show—the show here at the Whitney—we go around, we shut it down and you’d hear it getting quieter and quieter and you’d push the last button and you turn off the last piece and there’s literally nothing on the walls. There’s not even a painting in the dim light. There’s nothing. You touch the machine ten minutes later and it’s cold. It’s not warm anymore.
AW: But, Bill talk to me about this for a second. I mean you were talking about technology and the idea of a trick. I mean, here you basically have a very rich complex bag of tricks.
AW: But yet your work, you’re really trying to get it really profound, ideas and emotions and feelings and things that are very pure and isn’t it a real contradiction that here you are, first of all, often trying to get these kind of simple basic instincts and yet your using all these tricks and technology to get to that. I mean, isn’t that a contradiction?
BV: Um, possibly, but I think, you know, I’d have to say—trying to talk to everybody here—I’d have to say that it’s through tricks that we can understand reality better. I mean, the hand of the magician, the master of illusion, which is another word for some of the gods in Hinduism. Master of illusion. Somebody that seems at first glance to be pulling the wool over your eyes, but they’re really pulling the wool over nature’s eyes. They’re really tricking nature into revealing her secrets. That’s how I like to look at it. So like this piece right here, which has changed dramatically since it first came on and that woman walked and fell into the water. This piece really is showing you, if you really look at it carefully that that woman that you saw walking towards you in fact was a reflection on the surface of that pool and when she fell in the water and if you notice carefully there was no edge to that water, she was falling into her own reflection because the camera was not pointed directly at her from across the pool, but it was pointing down into a completely still ninety foot long pool of water and that was so still it was a prefect image and she fell into her own reflection and disturbed her own self-image and then submerged under the water and then disturbed the whole pool and then to the end where it’s gone. So that kind of knowledge which is what all religious traditions and particularly the mystical branches of all these traditions go after is (55:00) that knowledge of when you can kind of coax nature into somehow revealing something that you’ve assumed was one thing all along and all of a sudden it’s something else.
AW: Well, one of the things that seems to be a somewhat constant in your work is the idea of annihilation. Whether it’s, you know, self-annihilation or in the case of the figure here, actually in both of these, it’s about as much about kind of disappearance and destruction. I’m curious, I mean, for you is that about emphasizing that notion of allusion, this bag of tricks, and the fact that all the world is nothing but a bag of tricks, in a sense? Or is it about a kind of deeper archetype or a mental or emotional thing because you know there are pieces like The Crossing where you know, its annihilation of yourself through flame or through water.
BV: Well, I’ve been reading a lot of traditional texts for as long as I can remember. When I discovered Jalal Al-din Rumi who—he’s one of the greatest, greatest literary and spiritual poets in the history of humanity. He’s a Persian poet from the thirteenth century and he’s become quite popular recently. But I was reading things like that and, and they all share in common, even east and west this, this mistrust of the visual world that meets the eye. And I think Ananda Coomaraswamy, who’s to my mind one of the greatest art historians of the last hundred years, Shri Lankan—I mentioned him in my talk—he said something so profound and beautiful about art, he said that, “One must remember that artistic operations were original rights. And the purpose of the right is to sacrifice the old and bring into being a new human being.” And that’s what I think we do as artists.
AW: It’s a birthing mechanism
BV: Yeah. And it involves destruction and creation. You have to tear down something to build something up. You have to get to the bottom of something, and this can be very clear it can be an intellectual analysis that you just take to the nth degree, or it could be just some gift you get outta a kind of a mistake you made, or whatever. But this kind of idea that the object at hand under discussion is not the painting on the wall. It’s not the sculpture in the corner. It’s not the video on the plasma screen. It’s what you risk, what you put in to, what you sacrifice from yourself to get that deep. And all the great artists, you know, go to that edge and the very best ones even with a lifetime of training—take Raphael, you know, incredible artist and he’s there in the Stanza della segnatura—Kira and I went there when they were restoring it, we had the privilege of going up on the scaffolding and seeing this piece and he’s got, Plato and Aristotle, the School of Athens, all these amazing people drawn so beautifully and the curator was telling us at the very last minute, and this is in the Pope’s chambers, he puts in a young man because—excuse me but I have teenage boys so I don’t wanna offend any young people who are in the room, but teenagers sometimes really don’t get it, like even though they think they understand everything. So here’s this kid who’s in one of the most amazing moments a young man can be in, this is like you know, Aristotle and Plato I mean this is like wow, so Raphael apparently, according to the restorers, one of the last things he put in the picture of this guy with his back to us and oddly torqued a little bit, scurrying up the steps to the right. Kind of almost like to get out of the way or to run away or to do some mischief, you know. So, basically his butt is facing where the Pope would be when he comes into the chamber. What happens is, the reason why he didn’t get his head lopped off for that is because it actually adds this realism, this touch of humanity, this fragility of who we are, we don’t always get it right we sometimes turn our back to you know, the president or something. We mess up and life isn’t like neat and tidy and super formal, it’s kind of you know, sloppy and kind of you know, and I think that was just a stroke of genius. That’s the leap of faith when one knows everything one could possibly know and the highest achievement in their career and then they still feel they gonna jump off that cliff and they don’t know what’s on the other side. And that’s when greatness, that’s when all these amazing things happen.
AW: (60:00) You’ve referred to a couple of times tonight the idea of mistakes and how um, taking advantage of mistakes. Can you tell us about a major mistake that you may have made that led to something great?
BV: Ooo. What was a major mistake? Well, my best mistake was when I was young at Syracuse University. I was a junior and I was working in the video studio late at night. It was one of the few universities at the time that had actually a video studio with color cameras and we could kind of sign it out in a way and work all night, which I used to do. And so, one night I was making a dub of one of my tapes. Just copying it, you know, and I was tired it was like two in the morning and so I was plugging the machines in and re-patching them so I could get this machine to play back the thing, go over there and I push record on that one. What happened in my kind of stupor, I took the cable that was going to the second machine and I rerouted it back into the . . . I rerouted the playback one back into itself. So basically the machine tried to record itself and I was sitting alone and, you know, you have all of these monitors, there’s about three or four TV screens and a big switcher where you can mix things and stuff and everything freaked out completely. Like I was getting flashing things and flickering and the sound—there was sound where there was no sound patched in. There was like this really loud and I panicked and I threw the main switch and shut everything down and then I thought about it and I traced it back and I found my mistake and then that’s a crossroad right there. Because I could have just as easily gone, “Oh no,” you know, sure of course: unplug it, put it in right and make the dub. But, for some reason I said: “Wow, what was that.” So I kept it plugged in wrong and then I turned on the different components in the studio one by one so I could see what was affecting what and it became like a musical instrument and I just put a new tape on and I play the thing for about 30 minutes and all of these amazing images and colors came out, you know, which I took full credit for later of course. I mean, but, you know, it was really one of those profound moments and there’s been quite a few of them over the years and I think they’re gifts. They’re total gifts.
AW: Talk to me a little bit about, you know, the works that we’ve been watching tonight are really about taking advantage of a notion of extended time and, you know, we’re in a culture that people have an attention span of about two seconds generally. You know, what do you feel are you know, the challenges of making art and and in that environment, and do you feel that you’re pushing people to the edge? Is that part of what you’re doing?
BV: Well, I guess I kinda got over my younger years of wanting to be, wanting to do things like that, to really intentionally provoke someone. You know, and I think that’s really important, I mean, I think if we kind of nice and easy and calm and one of the problems that Americans have in general, I mean unfortunately not all of the country, there’s a lot of people really suffering in this country. Many, many more than should be for a country of this stature and size and economic power. But, at the same time you know, a lot of people are really comfortable and comfort breeds boredom and complacency and I think we need to be provoked, I mean, we just went down to see the 9/11 memorial down at the church by the site of the World Trade Center and it was so extraordinarily moving and to see the things that people had left and talked about, and that’s when you realized the strength of human beings doesn’t come out when you know everything, it comes about when you’re confronted with the unknown; when you’re confronted with something greater than yourself and you have to figure out a way to get through that and turn that thing around. So doesn’t eat you right up, and I think that’s a power that we have as individuals that the power of human beings is in collective energy. That’s why contemporary art as it’s practiced today is a privilege. It’s a privilege the way it’s a privilege for monks, like when we visited the Doc in the Himalayas and we visited the monasteries and all these monks are meditating and meanwhile the people down below are paying for that and they’re paying for that—it’s a transaction, you know, it’s not you know, politically it might seem weird for people but the monastery is the one that’s guiding the spiritual dimension of that, that valley, that whole valley. And the people . . . someone’s gotta do all this hard stare at the wall for you know, (65:00) eight hours a day and you know, try to deepen themselves into some other dimension. That’s important. So it’s all part of a larger kind of collective whole, and some people need to be more alone and the kind of people that are contemporary or artists today—those of us that are visual artists are especially painters or sculptors or anybody who’s able to do a lot of the work themselves without a big crew, you’re really privileged that you can extend your being out like that in a concentrated form and, you know, I think it’s a real special thing.
AW: You know, the early work that you describe, the mistake actually was also indicative of a lot of early work, not that it was necessarily mistakes but you were very much exploring the character—the unique qualities of the video medium. But there’s a certain point, I mean, particularly for I think most contemporary views, they know your work for its kind of large historical themes. Its religious connections, its narratives. At what point did your work shift, or did it make a distinct shift between those works which were really about examining the character, the medium itself, to looking at these larger themes?
BV: I guess I shifted away from examining the character of the medium when I finally understood the character of the medium. And that must have been, you know, probably at the end of the 1980s into the 1990s. And I think if you look at—I mean it was such a privileged thing to be just randomly by chance born to coincide with the development of television and this medium, which now had become the internet and has taken over the whole world. I mean I’ve grown up literally with the same time line as video. Video really came out in 1966, 1967 and very early stuff. I was in university starting in 1969. I went through every possible format that videos take in-in that time all the way leading up to high definition you know, digital cinema is professional level, camera so my pallet in this medium is huge, you know, one very important thing is not to reject something just cause its old. I mean that beautiful old camera that I shot this piece Numa that we’re showing at the James Cohan Gallery: 1994 analog surveillance camera, black and white, grainy, in fact that’s the same camera there that I’ve used in a piece from 2000. And it’s just so precious for me, you know, that thing. So it’s really, you know, about knowing when to move on; sometimes it’s quite tricky and sometimes you just gotta take the wheel of the car and make a sharp left hand turn for whatever reason. Other times you go forward. I’ve been a kind of an artist who didn’t make those sharp left hand turns really. Everything I seem to have done—and I think again, it’s just because of how my personal life overlapped with the evolution of the technology, that I just felt just as I was getting bored or just as unsatisfied what I was doing, some new thing would come out. And I would hear about it and I remember when LCD screens, flat screens came out; this was in 1998, engineer friend of mine I had worked with for many years, who helped me figure out all the technical stuff in my studio and try and rig thing up in a new way to do whatever vision-crazy vision I had in my mind at that time. He walks in one day says: “Hey Bill, take a look at this,” and it was a flat screen about this big, and it was—they had flat screens before that but they weren’t like this one. This was an LCD screen and it was photographic realism that I was seeing and I just couldn’t believe it. It was just so pristine, and of course you see them now everybody has you know, Apple cinema displays and stuff like that, but the first time I saw that I thought, “This is absolutely incredible.” It’s really taken video to an . . . and I even question in my mind whether it was video and I honestly feel today, I don’t think it was video. I think we were seeing the beginning of this thing that we’re in now. But it was a new thing.
AW: Which leads me to another question, and I think I’m only gonna have time for a couple more. You know, this was something about ten-fifteen years ago, there was a sense both in photography and with video with the increasing scale. And the increasing technological capacity of the medium that a lot of photographers and video artists, you most among them I’d say, were trying to really take on painting on its own terms. And challenging kind of the precedence or the importance of painting within (70:00) the museum, and you know, the flat screens you’re referring to also, in the fact, you know, that you’ve increasingly done exhibitions within the museum gallery that yes, they turn off with a switch, but they have a different relationship to the painting on the walls.
AW: I don’t know that it was something that you were consciously saying, “Gee, I wanna do something as grand as painting,” but is it something that was always, always there for you?
BV: Yeah, I mean, the early video synthesizers created in the late 1960s were these analog devices based on the Mo synthesizer which was a electronic music instrument. And as you know I worked with David Tudor, the great pianist of John Cage for about seven-eight years in the 1970s with his performing ensemble doing electronic music. So I was really connected with that and these devices were already treating video like painting. And I remember Nam June Paik saying one time—I was his assistant for a while and I helped him set up his first American museum show up in Syracuse—and I remembered a statement he made in one of his texts where he said, “Television is usually made with the mouth,” talking about newscasters blabbering away, he said, “I made TV with my fingers.” He was absolutely right. He was twiddling dials and turning things and dealing with this sort of electronic kind of image. So that kind of connection of painting I think has always been there really with the electronic image sometimes to a fault. Some of it gets really kind of silly and pretty vapid. But the other things that you just sparked in me, talking about that early period and then making—seeing the technology change. When those small digital flat screens came out with that kind of quality, the first thing that I got from it was not photography, but fifteenth century northern European painting. The van Eyck brothers, Rogier van Der Weyde. You know, those guys living in Holland, this was not Italy it wasn’t sensuous Italy with all the emotion and everything, these were the cool northerners. And they were painting for the merchant class, not the king, not the queen, not the Medici. And they had this technology of oil painting which was exactly like digital. It didn’t dry right away, you can keep reworking it for two or three days, and they had sable brushes, some of which were about a millimeter thick. [Inaudible] . . . individual eyebrow hairs and they could paint the reflection on every curl. It was like, you know, Protestant brutal minimalism, you know. You have to take penance when you’re like, you know, painting like that. And I don’t even know how they do it when you see van Der Weyde’s great Deposition in the Prado. I mean it’s like about, you know, nine feet across and you can go up to it and you can see every little piece of fur on the guy’s furry collar, you know. Like in scale, one to one scale, it’s like astonishing. And then for what I thought about was at the same time at that point in European history, when what made this revolution in painting occur and new technologies occurring allowed, was also happening in the society in that people were becoming more mobile. So they needed small little things to take on the road, not big things. Portable altar pieces where you fold it up, you put it in the thing, you check in to the motel and you open it up.
AW: Right in your motel.
BV: Yeah. So it’s like today—and the business guys do that exactly like that. They check in to the Motel 6 and they open it up . . .
AW: So do you expect people to take your flat screens with you to the motel?
BV: Yeah, definitely, sure! I got portable art works [Inaudible]. No, but it’s really incredible that they’re doing the exact same thing. They’re looking at . . . they open up and check out Bloombergs and the guys you know, five hundred years earlier are you know, checking out Jesus and Mary. It’s pretty interesting. Similar farfetched idea for success at the other end actually, but . . .
AW: This is where we go into our Three Stooges routine. But no, I’m gonna ask you just one last question because then I’d like to open it up for a few questions from the audience. But, you know, you have moved as technology has moved, and n
A pioneer in the medium of video art, Bill Viola has been instrumental in establishing video as a vital form of contemporary art. Often drawing on religious iconography and historical narratives, Viola’s work exhibits a simple and elegant beauty that exceeds the complex technology of its presentation. As he states, “It only takes an instant for an impression to become a vision.” In this fifth Annenberg Lecture, Viola will speak about his work in conversation with Adam D. Weinberg, the Whitney’s Alice Pratt Brown Director.
In honor of the late Walter H. Annenberg, philanthropist, patron of the arts, and former ambassador, the Whitney Museum of American Art established the Walter Annenberg Annual Lecture to advance this country’s understanding of its art and culture.