Bill Viola

The calm mystery of a floating world, illuminated only by a beam of light, is suddenly upset by the presence of a female body, liberated from any trace of earthly weight. As if attracted to another dimension, the body rises, leaving behind a luminous wake, similar to the appearance of a new constellation. Transmitted on a large plasma video monitor, Isolde’s Ascension (The Shape of Light in the Space after Death), 2005, is one of the works created within Love/Death: the Tristan Project, a series conceived by Bill Viola in relation to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. While Wagner, inspired by the philosophy of Schopenhauer, rewrote the originally medieval legend and focused on the relationship between love and death, which he sublimated into his Liebestod, evoking the death of love, Viola further heightens the exploration of a dimension that transcends terrestrial life. Thus the video installation shows Isolde’s path in her quest to reunite with her beloved through death. The image bears traces of the iconography of The Assumption of the Virgin, a painting by Titian in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, which made an impression on Wagner during the time he was composing his opera. In agreement with Viola, the video installation is permanently installed in the Castello’s former chapel, precisely in the position traditionally reserved for the altarpiece.
Bill Viola’s work is characterized by a reflection on the human condition and a by a search for a spiritual dimension. In his earliest works in the 1970s, the artist uses the possibilities technology to create videos that investigate specific psychological and emotional states. In subsequent works, developed as multi-channel installations conceived to stimulate numerous senses, he concentrates on archetypal images, including the processes of birth, growth, and death. Raised in a Catholic environment, Viola followed a spiritual path that led him to Eastern mysticism. However, in works he produced since the mid-1990s, he turned his attention to Christian iconography, in particular to its Medieval, Renaissance, and Mannerist representations.
The progressive degree of complexity found in Viola’s installations also demands the use of actors and a large crew that the artist directs on sets comparable to those used for commercial movies and which are built in his studio. The recorded images—for which 35-millimeter film is also sometimes used—are successively elaborated with the most advanced digital technology. Music, sound effects, and computer enhancement are integral parts of his installations.


For Bill Viola, art is part of a process of transformation, offering the possibility to develop a deeper understanding of existence by means of an extremely personal course. Viola’s works delineate new spheres in the history of video, and the artist’s career is a paradigm for comprehending the development of this form of expression. While still an adolescent, Viola conducted his first experiments with sound and visual recording techniques. He enrolled at Syracuse University (New York), where he took part in a pilot program dealing with the new electronic technologies. Upon completion of his studies, he worked as a video technician at the Everson Museum, also at Syracuse. It was here that he collaborated in the installations of the first exhibitions entirely dedicated to video and its pioneers.
His first works dating to the early seventies participated in that spirit which defined the possibilities of the electronic medium. Particular visual or acoustic properties were the subject of his first tapes, produced by recording and observing the real world and subjecting the images to elaboration and editing. What became apparent was the attention paid to psychic and emotive states characterizing human experience (with the artist often appearing in these videos). A potentially anonymous subject, his presence does not, however, imply any autobiographical reference.
Throughout his career, the attention to subject matter in his works runs parallel to his particular use of the most sophisticated techniques available (often creating new applications for them).
His continuous traveling is an integral part of his research. The diversity of the artist’s travels contributes to an uninterrupted spiritual exploration.
From the eighties onwards, the artist has developed his works in the form of multiple-channel video installations, conceived with the intention of enveloping the observer with images and sounds whose non-linearity represents the manifold possibilities of the psyche and the human soul. Archetypal images, processes of birth, growth, and death represent some of the recurrent themes. The main starting point is the artist’s personal experiences, though transformed into situations of universal value.
Raised in a Christian environment, Viola followed his own spiritual path that led him to Oriental mysticism. However, in the works produced from the mid-nineties, he has returned to explore Christian iconography, paying particular attention to its Medieval, Renaissance, and Mannerist representations.
The progressive degree of complexity found in Viola’s installations also demands the use of actors and a large ensemble that the artist directs on sets comparable to those of cinema and built in the studio. The recorded images—sometimes also using 35 mm film—are successively elaborated with the most advanced digital technology. Music, sound effects, and computer elaboration are integral parts of the installations.
His latest works include, in addition to large-scale projected images, plasma or LCD screens that recall the history of religious painting, from altar-pieces to the intimate scale of votive paintings. [M.B.]

List of Works

Red Tape – Collected Works, 1975
video, color, sound, 30 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The first collection presented by the artist anticipates many of the themes more fully investigated in his later production. Though independent, the five videos contained in this collection represent a thematic whole.
Playing Soul Music to My Freckles, 1975
video, color, sound, 2 min. 46 sec.
The freckles on the artist’s skin are the public audience to which music by Aretha Franklin is dedicated, transmitted by way of a loudspeaker placed on his back.
A Non-Dairy Creamer, 1975
video, color, sound, 5 min. 19 sec.
The simple, daily ritual of drinking coffee is the subject “amplified” by means of a fixed camera image and a “soundtrack” that concentrates on every minute noise connected to human presence and activity. The coffee drinking coincides with the disappearance of the image of the person reflected in the coffee cup.
The Semi-Circular Canals, 1975
video, color, sound, 8 min. 51 sec.
Surrounded by a rural setting and its sounds, the half-bust frame of the artist’s body is the pivot around which the small microcosm shot by the camera revolves. The title refers to the portion of the inner ear that controls balance.
A Million Other Things (2), 1975
video, color, sound, 4 min. 35 sec.
The direct recording of different sounds and situations of light articulates the otherwise fixed framing of a man near a warehouse overlooking a lake. Filmed over the course of eight hours, the video concludes with the singular image of a man in profile.
Return, 1975
video, color, sound, 7 min. 15 sec.
The artist holds a bell that he rings intermittently. As he moves closer to the camera, each time he rings the bell the man’s body is returned to its starting point, as if incapable of achieving the goal he had set for himself.

Four Songs, 1976
video, color, sound, 33 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Viola calls the four videos here collected “canti” in order to underline the close relationship that ties him to the principles of musical composition.
Junkyard Levitation, 1976
video, color, sound, 3 min. 11 sec.
In a junkyard of metal waste bordering on a railway, a man carries out an exercise of levitation.
Songs of Innocence, 1976
video, color, sound, 9 min. 34 sec.
On a sunny day, a children’s choir interprets a song. When they finish, the choir leaves the field filmed by the camera, which remains fixed in order to record the hours passing, from sunset until the darkness of night, describing the inexorable flowing of time, the persistence of memory, and the inevitability of death.
The Space between the Teeth, 1976
video, color, sound, 9 min. 10 sec.
Seated at the end of a long corridor a man emits a liberating shout at regular intervals. The movement of the camera describes the close physical and emotive relationship between architectural space and the sound that periodically invades it. The video is carried out using the most advanced editing techniques available at the time.
Truth through Mass Individuation, 1976
video, color, sound, 10 min. 13 sec.
A man carries out different actions: he throws a metal object into a flock of pigeons, he shoots into the air in the streets of New York, and then into a crowd at a stadium. The title refers to the writings of Carl Jung on notions of the individual and the masses.

Migration, 1976
video, color, sound, 7 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The sound of a gong articulates the structure of this video that is centered on the analysis of an image whose detail unfolds gradually. The work culminates in the close-up of a drop of water, a microcosm capable of reflecting and enclosing within itself the uniqueness of the person observing it.

Memory Surfaces and Mental Prayers, 1977
video, color, sound, 29 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The three videos regard the nature of reality, understood as an entire body of simultaneous elements that happen in different spaces.
The Wheel of Becoming, 1977
video, color, sound, 7 min. 40 sec.
The image has the form of a quadripartite mandala. Inside it are images of an equal number of individuals, underlining the concomitance in time and space of events and actions.
The Morning after the Night of Power, 1977
video, color, sound, 10 min. 44 sec.
The frame is fixed on a vase placed on a table. Domestic life unfolds around the object. The title refers to a passage in the Koran: the night during which the disciples receive inspiration from angels descended from the sky.
Sweet Light, 1977
video, color, sound, 9 min. 08 sec.
A moth approaches the light, only to be destroyed by it. This event becomes a metaphor of human experience.

Palm Trees on the Moon, 1977
video, color, sound, 26 min. 06 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Set on the Solomon Islands, the video records a traditional dance and music festival at Guadalcanal, an island that was a theater of cruel clashes during World War II. The video is constructed in agreement with the artist’s experience on the island, juxtaposing indigenous cultures and Western influences. During the same period, UNESCO organized a workshop dealing with the use of video technology with the intention of offering the local populations a means for recording and possibly preserving their culture.

The Reflecting Pool – Collected Works, 1977–1980
video, color, sound, 62 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The collection comprises five autonomous works that when grouped together narrate the stages of existence from life to death. Filmed with varying techniques, the videos are characterized by images of transition, lingering on the passing from day to night, from movement to immobility, and from the transient to the eternal.
The Reflecting Pool, 1977–1979
video, color, sound, 7 min.
A pond in the heart of the woods reflects the flowing of time.
Moonblood, 1977–1979
video, color, sound, 12 min. 48 sec.
A woman, the alternation of day and night, light and shadow, movements of water, city sounds, nature, and the calm of the desert: these images and sounds flow with intentional slowness, isolating sensations and emotions that would otherwise be indefinable.
Silent Life, 1979
video, color, sound, 13 min. 14 sec.
Filmed in documentary style, the video is set in the maternity ward of a hospital and films newborn babies, lingering on their expressions, first emotions, and the specific language made up of sounds, crying, and wailing.
Ancient of Days, 1979–1980
video, color, sound, 12 min. 21 sec.
In a process comparable to musical composition, Viola weaves natural and subjective time and their different rhythms. The changes in nature are summarized in the final image of a still life painted on canvas and mounted on a wall.
Vegetable Memory, 1978–1980
video, color, sound, 15 min. 13 sec.
Structured as a cyclical vision and intentionally repetitive, the video contemplates the phenomenon of time, death, and material dissolution.

Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat), 1979
video, color, sound, 28 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Images of the desert, filmed at moments of maximum temperature, are alternated with winter shots recorded in Illinois and Saskatchewan. With special telephoto lenses, the artist captures the mirages caused by the sun’s heat and the loss of visibility due to snowstorms, recording images at the limit of perception. The title refers to a salt lake, a location on the Tunisian side of the Sahara.

Sodium Vapor (Including Constellation and Oracle), 1979, published in 1986
video, color, sound, 14 min. 41 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The title refers to the type of urban lighting used in New York. Set in the heart of the night, the video films city life and the slowed rhythm that characterizes the night hours, capturing lights, shadows, and particular effects caused by the illumination.

Hatsu Yume (First Dream), 1981
video, color, stereo sound, 56 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
In meditating on the notion of light, its relationship with water, and the opposites represented by darkness and night, the video is set in the landscape of contemporary Japan. The observation of location, described through the cycle of a sunny day, becomes the symbolic metaphor of life and death.

Anthem, 1983
video, color, sound, 11 min. 30 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The shout of an immobile girl, inside a station of Los Angeles, is modified in such a way as to produce a sequence of seven notes reminiscent of a religious canto (repeated during the video). The sequence articulates an alternation of images that record elements of daily life, the realities of heavy industry, surgical operations, and obsessions regarding the body.

Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, 1983
video, black and white, sound, 19 min. 11 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The fixed position of the video camera records the passing of time and the behavior of the artist, secluded for three consecutive days in an apartment.

Reverse Television – Portraits of Viewers (Compilation Tape), 1984
video, color, sound, 15 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Through a series of portraits of people of different ages, filmed in their homes while seated and staring into the camera, the artist creates a project intended for closed-circuit television that undermines the traditional relationship between TV and its “invisible” audience. Conceived as surprise inserts within television shows, the images were broadcast for the first time by WGBH-TV television channel in Boston from November 14 to 28, 1983. This 1984 video documents the project in a collection of the portraits, reduced to fifteen seconds each.

I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like, 1986
video, color, sound, 89 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
A journey in search of the intimate connections to animal consciousness all humans carry within, the video unfolds by a progression of images beginning from the natural world (from the initial non-differentiated stages of life) up to logical and spiritual states. The work is structured in five parts: Il Corpo Scuro (The Dark Body), The Language of the Birds, The Night of Sense, Stunned by Drum, and The Living Flame. The title of the work was taken from the Rigveda, a Sanskrit text that through the stages of birth, awareness, primordial existence, intuition, knowledge, and rational thought and faith arrives at a transcendent reality, beyond the laws of physics.

Angel’s Gate, 1989
video, color, sound, 4 min. 50 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Brief sequences of images describe dissolution, impermanence, the passing of time, and the explosive beginning of life documented through the birth of a baby boy. The final image consists in a metaphoric passage by means of a gate and entrance to a world of pure light.

The Passing, 1991
video, black and white, sound, 54 min. 13 sec.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
Memory and reality, infancy and old age, birth and death become blurred in the images that flow like multiple experiences of the spirit and the mind. The personal point of view and the family life of the artist narrate experiences of a universal value.

Déserts (Deserts), 1994
video, color, sound, 26 min.
Purchased with the contribution of the Compagnia di San Paolo
The work begins in accompaniment to a concerto by Edgar Varèse, executed by the German group Ensemble Modern. The video presents natural landscapes ranging from ocean beds to deserts and urban views. The only human presence is a man, alone, inside a rarefied domestic surrounding. The light that is artificial, natural, reflected, or emanated by the fire is a recurrent element that enhances the musical sonorities. The choice of the images develops some notations left by the composer.