Bill Vio­la In­fi­nite Being


How does an ar­tist push back the li­mits of vi­deo? Keep going fur­ther? This is the ques­tion that has dri­ven Bill Vio­la’s work in this me­dium that he pio­nee­red, and the cur­rent re­tros­pec­tive at the Grand Pa­lais, Pa­ris (through Ju­ly 21) shows where it has led him through a score of works on over thir­ty screens, re­pre­sen­ting ma­ny hours of pro­jec­tion. Vio­la’s cutting-edge image-ma­king is in­fu­sed with the lu­mi­no­si­ty and for­mal ri­gor of Re­nais­sance art.

Up to now, French vie­wers have been able to see works by Bill Vio­la on­ly in small quan­ti­ties, ne­ver more than two or three at any one time. But now there are some twen­ty all at once, sprea­ding over two floors of the Grand Pa­lais in a ma­gni­ficent wave of over se­ven hours of images. And we are car­ried along, mo­ved and stun­ned, with each work conveying what was and has re­mai­ned the ar­tist’s fun­da­men­tal am­bi­tion from the out­set: to keep mo­ving for­ward with vi­deo, pu­shing back the li­mits, sub­ver­ting its sup­po­sed spe­ci­fi­ci­ty, which he had hel­ped es­ta­blish, and to express ex­clu­si­ve­ly in vi­deo, but by eve­ry pos­sible means, the secrets of an ob­ses­sion that is no­thing more and no­thing less than the li­mits of Being. But Being, of course, is li­mit­less. Mo­ving through this ex­hi­bi­tion, from The Re­flec­ting Pool to the un­der­wa­ter bea­ti­tude of The Drea­mers, Being spreads end­less­ly. Ini­tial­ly per­cei­ved in Time as a sum of mo­ments, Being then emerges in space as the ha­lo of an exis­ting en­ti­ty. That is what I de­duce when I see all these ins­tal­la­tions. And what I un­ders­tand when I lis­ten to the per­son who crea­ted them. Here are two ex­cerpts from an in­ter­view I made in Long Beach, Ca­li­for­nia, on November 3, 2013, for a film: Bill Vio­la, ex­pé­rience de l’In­fi­ni.


Why at the end of The Space Bet­ween the Teeth, do we have this image of the man— you—in the wa­ter? Was he thrown in­to the wa­ter (of a ri­ver) or swal­lo­wed up by the ba­ck­wash of a boat (out of the frame).

I have al­ways been in­ter­es­ted in wa­ter. I had an ex­pe­rience when I was young, I was al­most drow­ned , it was real­ly quite ama­zing, and it ac­tual­ly chan­ged my en­tire life, and I think that for me this is the most im­por­tant ex­pe­rience in my life, when I was six and fell in the wa­ter. My uncle was there, just by chance, and he jum­ped in the

wa­ter and pul­led me out, but I was un­der for a lit­tle bit, and that was a ve­ry strong emo­tio­nal kind of ex­pe­rience for me. I had no fear, ab­so­lu­te­ly no fear, I would have stayed there if he did not come in, and I would have been ve­ry hap­py.

Is the cry in The Space Bet­ween the Teeth re­la­ted to this ac­ci­dent?

No, I ne­ver thought about it that way, it pro­ba­bly is. It’s an in­ner, in­ter­nal cry, at that point. But again, it was not crying for fear, it was al­most like a crying for li­be­ra­tion. When I felt I did not have any weight, I just went right to the bot­tom, and I just sat on the bot­tom of the lake, it was as tall as the cei­ling, maybe a lit­tle bit hi­gher, and I just went to the bot­tom and I just sat there, and I saw these in­cre­dible things, so it was a po­si­tive ex­pe­rience, not a frigh­te­ning ex­pe­rience, you know, and it was a kind of a trau­ma, but a po­si­tive trau­ma. Maybe some other per­son who went down there and did not have my men­ta­li­ty would have had a ve­ry dif­fi­cult time, they might have drow­ned, be­cause they would have been frigh­te­ned, but I was not frigh­te­ned, I thought I was in hea­ven or so­me­thing like it. It see­med like it was a new world , I had ne­ver been un­der wa­ter, I ne­ver saw that angle of view, and since that time, I al­ways come back to that, cons­tant­ly. In all my work you see the trend of that, in all my work; and I know I was lu­cky that I was ve­ry fo­cu­sed at that time, as a child, be­cause any other per­son would go, you know, wild, and have drow­ned, they wouldn’t stay there if they would know how to swim, but I did not know how to swim at that time, so, so­meone else would have died, and I was just ve­ry calm, mes­me­ri­zed, I thought it was the most beau­ti­ful world I had ever seen, a new world.

What are the other tur­ning points? How did The Gree­ting come about?

I’ll tell you a sto­ry. I was in a book­shop and I hap­pe­ned to pick up a book. At that time I was get­ting a lit­tle bit in­ter­es­ted in the Re­nais­sance, but not that dee­ply, be­cause I was much more in­ter­es­ted in get­ting for­ward with vi­deo and kee­ping going in that di­rec­tion. I was just in the book­shop at that time, and loo­king down I saw this image I will ne­ver for­get, of these three wo­men, and they were in flo­wing robes, and I knew it was a Re­nais­sance picture, and they were en­ga­ged in some sort of conver­sa­tion which I didn't know what it was, though I could see clear­ly that they fo­cu­sed on each other. One of them was kind of tur­ning away and it was, it just cap­ti­va­ted me, I can­not say why, and then I brought the book home, to my stu­dy, and I star­ted to read it, and es­pe­cial­ly to look at the pic­tures. I was just fas­ci­na­ted, so­me­thing in the picture grab­bed me, and I real­ly did not know what it was. I be­gan to think of ano­ther ex­pe­rience I had. I was in the car, dri­ving to my stu­dio one day, and there were three wo­men on the street cor­ner. I had to stop at the light, and these wo­men were just coming back from their lunch break, in the af­ter­noon, they were wal­king right in front of me on the other side of the street, and it was windy, and so as they star­ted to go across the street, the wind came up and their dresses were kind of mo­ving as they were pas­sing by me, like this, and I was in this, of course, sea­led cap­sule of a car, you know I was like the out­side ob­ser­ver, a per­fect po­si­tion to be loo­king at things, and I just wat­ched them go across and go away, and then the light chan­ged, and, first thing I did was to, when I got to the stu­dio, I ra­ced back, ope­ned the door, and wal­ked right to the book I had on Pon­tor­mo, and I ope­ned it up, and there it was, exact­ly the same thing that I had seen, from the Re­nais­sance. Quite un­be­lie­vable, I mean, and that was the first time that I ever thought of ma­king a Re­nais­sance pain­ting; I had no in­ter­est in it, to make a Re­nais­sance pain­ting, but so­me­thing in my mind, a part of me that isn’t con­nec­ted to this guy up here tal­king kept me coming back to it un­til I rea­li­zed that I had to make this piece. It had to wait al­most four years for it to be­come a piece. We did these big pro­duc­tions, with sets, and a lot of my friends were sho­cked when they rea­li­zed that I was doing a set with wo­men in robes! They said “You trai­tor! What are you doing ?” [ Laughs] And I did not know what I was doing.


“Get­ting for­ward with vi­deo.” That was the con­cern on Bill Vio­la’s mind when he be­came in­ter­es­ted in Ita­lian Re­nais­sance pain­ting. Hea­ring him ex­plain how he came to make The Gree­ting, a ta­bleau vi­vant ins­pi­red by a work by Pon­tor­mo (1494– 1557), I did not im­me­dia­te­ly grasp how this work connects to the ex­pe­rience that he lo­cates as the ori­gin of all his work: that time, aged six, when he fell in­to a pool and al­most drow­ned. Down at the bot­tom of that pool, during those few se­conds of ap­nea, he glimp­sed a world that no­bo­dy else had seen. The ac­ci­dent as source of ins­pi­ra­tion: per­ma­nent, to­tal and ab­so­lute. “It’s there in all my work,” he notes.

There is, cer­tain­ly, a great deal of wa­ter in Vio­la’s vi­deos, as is confir­med by all the di­vers, false-drow­nings, al­truis­tic Nar­cis­suses, vic­tims of ur­ban tsu­na­mis and other he­roes emer­ging from the wa­ter. But there is no wa­ter in The Gree­ting (which, in fact, the ex­hi­bi­tion does not show, pe­rhaps be­cause it was dee­med too fa­mi­liar, and be­cause it was shown in Pa­ris at the church of Saint-Eus­tache in 2000). And yet that work too owes its exis­tence to its link with the “po­si­tive trau­ma” of the six year-old’s near death by drow­ning. This tur­ning point in his work, the di­vi­ding line bet­ween two halves of his pro­duc­tion, was concei­ved, Vio­la in­forms us, in a state of im­mer­sion: loo­king out through his car, he saw three wo­men cros­sing the road, their dresses mo­ved by the wind, and felt exact­ly as he had as a child when drow­ning pro­vi­ded him with those en­chan­ting vi­sions. The sea­led cap­sule of his car re­con­nec­ted him with what he argues is the pri­mal scene of all his crea­tive acts. Su­perb co­he­rence. Bra­vo the sub­cons­cious.

He had found so­me­thing, but what? How to get for­ward with vi­deo, by im­mer­sing him­self in the Re­nais­sance and its pain­tings. What, a ta­bleau vi­vant? How does that re­late to vi­deo? This was scan­da­lous. His friends pro­tes­ted, his ad­mi­rers didn’t know what to think. His man­ner had chan­ged, but al­so his ma­te­rial, the air, the ac­tion, the pers­pec­tive, the per­son­nel. Eve­ry­thing, ex­cept the me­dium. On the contra­ry, it was he said, in or­der to keep up his ex­pe­ri­men­ta­tion with the pos­si­bi­li­ties of vi­deo that he set off on this pic­to­rial jour­ney. Be­fore then, his vi­deos had of­fe­red the log of his ex­pe­riences with space and time, per­cei­ved through the im­pli­ca­tion of his own bo­dy in the spe­ci­fic places and si­tua­tions (mo­ments) cho­sen for their yield of ex­treme sen­sa­tions. But where was he ta­king the me­dium by ta­king up The Vi­si­ta­tion, the work of a Man­ne­rist pain­ter? In­to an even more vi­vid ex­plo­ra­tion of the ups and downs of Being, ob­ser­ved not in real time but in ins­tant re­play. This is not the kind of re­cons­ti­tu­ted Real that we get with Pa­so­li­ni as he fol­lows Je­sus with his ca­me­ra on his shoul­der (the­re­by ope­ning up a new kind of ci­ne­ma which is still being made to­day), but in the folds and coils (with Leib­niz and De­leuze) of a Representation through representation. Here the stret­ching of these tem­po­ral folds, seen in close-up, re­veals not the content of a mo­ment (the den­si­ty of the Real) but the splen­dor of a being. The gi­ven, by an al­rea­dy-for­med image, vi­si­ted as the one pos­sible epi­pha­ny of Being. No­bo­dy had tried to at­tain that with vi­deo be­fore.

Af­ter his Vi­si­ta­tion, Bill Vio­la did no­thing else. He re­pro­du­ced se­ve­ral Re­nais­sance pain­tings (in­clu­ding Emer­gence, a strange Re­sur­rec­tion en­ding in a Pie­tà), but soon ex­ten­ded his sys­tem of fi­gu­ra­tion, which ul­ti­ma­te­ly has more to do with thea­ter than pain­ting, to all kinds of si­tua­tions sta­ged with more and more ac­tors. For example, the splen­did Going Forth by Day, in which five stu­pe­fying scenes are spread over 300 square me­ters in the Grand Pa­lais, for­ming a single vi­sion. The de­ci­sion by Jé­rôme Neutres and Ki­ra Pe­rov, the cu­ra­tors of the Grand Pa­lais show, to com­bine works from Vio­la’s two per­iods (for example, Chott-El-Dje­rid, a do­cu­men­ta­ry on mi­rages in the Tu­ni­sian de­sert, and The En­coun­ter, in which two wo­men re­play the ac­tions of The Vi­si­ta­tion against a ba­ck­drop of mi­rages in the American de­sert) en­ables us to cons­tant­ly mea­sure this ex­ten­sion of the po­wers of vi­deo which has al­ways been his goal, on each oc­ca­sion heigh­te­ning our joy at being there.

Vi­deo ma­ker Jean-Paul Far­gier pro­du­ced Bill Vio­la, ex­pé­rience de l’In­fi­ni in 2013 (co­lor film, French and En­glish, 52 mn, NTSC. © 2014 – Réu­nion des Mu­sées Na­tio­naux - Grand Pa­lais; co­prod. © 2013 – MAT FILMS, Réu­nion des Mu­sées Na­tio­naux - Grand Pa­lais, tv­fil78). He has just pu­bli­shed Bill Vio­la, au fil du temps (De l’In­ci­dence), a col­lec­tion of his wri­tings on Vio­la, and in par­ti­cu­lar his pieces for art­press. « Slow­ly Tur­ning Nar­ra­tive ». 1992. Vi­déo (Ph. G. McKin­nis)

Bill Vio­la

Né en / born 1951 Vit et tra­vaille à / lives in Long Beach, Ca­li­for­nie Ex­po­si­tions ré­centes / Recent shows: 2010 He Weeps for You et Re­flec­ting Pool Stu­dio na­tio­nal des arts contem­po­rains, Le Fres­noy 2013 Lo­vers, Ins­tants nu­mé­riques, Mar­seille The Hall of Whis­pers, Concier­ge­rie, Pa­ris (À Triple Tour)

Tris­tan et Isold (dé­cor pour) de Pe­ter Sel­lars (créé en 2005), Opé­ra Bas­tille, Pa­ris 2014 In­ner Pas­sage (hom­mage to Ri­chard Long), Vi­déo­formes, Cler­mont-Fer­rand (19 mars-6 avril) ; Trace(s) nu­mé­riques, Char­treuse de Val­bonne, Gard (15 mai - 7 juin) 20e Fes­ti­val in­ter­na­tio­nal d’art vi­déo, Ca­sa­blan­ca (22 - 26 avril) Au­to­por­trait, Ga­le­rie des Of­fices, Flo­rence Mar­tyrs (qua­drip­tyque), église Saint-Paul, Londres (mai)

« The Gree­ting ». 1995. Ins­tal­la­tion vi­déo so­nore. (Coll. Whit­ney Mu­seum of American Art ; Ph. K. Pe­rov). Vi­deo ins­tal­la­tion with sound

« The Ci­ty of Man ». 1989. Ins­tal­la­tion vi­déo so­nore. Vi­deo ins­tal­la­tion with sound

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