Artists & Designers

Bill Viola (b. 1951)

"I happen to use video because I live in the last part of the twentieth century, and the medium of video (or television) is clearly the most relevant visual art form in contemporary life...One of my sources of inspiration has been the thirteenth-century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. He once wrote, "New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore increase your necessity so that you may increase your perception." [1] -Bill Viola

Bill Viola was born in 1951 in New York City. In 1973 he received a B.F.A. from the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University. He has traveled to Java, Bali, the Solomon Islands, the Himalayas, and the Sahara Desert to produce work, and he has been an artist in residence at WNET Thirteen Television Laboratory in New York, Sony Corporation's Atsugi Laboratories in Japan, and the San Diego Zoo. Viola, who has lived in California since 1981, has received numerous awards and honors, including the prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1985) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (1989). In 1995 Viola represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in Italy with a solo exhibition of five new installations.

Among the first group of artists to use video, which became an artistic medium in the mid-1960s with Sony's Portapak, a low-price portable recording camera (originally a tool for television and commercial purposes) such as Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, and Peter Campus, Bill Viola has singularly revealed the poetic, metaphorical and spiritual possibilities of video. He has played a crucial role in establishing video as a rich, viable art form. Incorporating images of contemporary life associated with the great themes such as birth, death, and consciousness, Viola has created an art that is contemplative, profound, and transcendent. His work has not only defined the art of our times, it has brought awareness and understanding of the human condition and spirit at the end of the twentieth century.

Viola has created works--single-channel to video projections to spatial environments enveloping the viewer in images and sound--that are in-depth explorations into the nature of human memory, perception and consciousness. In his works, The Reflecting Pool (1977/79), Anthem (1983), The Sleep of Reason (1988), Room for St. John of the Cross (1983), and Slowly Turning Narrative (1992), for example, Viola depicts images-a man emerging from a forest to stand by a reflecting pool disappears; a young girl in a white dress standing in the central hall of Union Station in Los Angeles screams a piercing, chant-like scream; dogs braking violently; burning forests; snow-covered mountains in constant chaotic movement; children at a birthday party-that appear to operate between darkness and light, order and chaos, waking and dreaming, the conscious and unconscious.

Viola's underlying, motivating idea is to blur the boundaries between the mind and body, microcosm and macrocosm, and interior and exterior space. He states,

I do not distinguish between inner and outer landscapes, between the environment as the physical world out there and the mental image of that environment within each and every individual. It is the tension, the transition, the exchange, the resonance between these two modalities that energize, define our reality. [2]

Using and manipulating the "raw materials" of sound (tone) and time (duration), Viola's images reach all the senses, heightening awareness. He creates an experience, not a view of an experience. In essence, the viewer becomes both witness and world. A mediation on the phenomenon of sensory perception, Viola's work illuminates how the integration of all senses and the connecting of mind and body, is an avenue to self-knowledge. From his collection of writings, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House, Viola wrote: "Seeing and Being. My work as an effort to unify perception and ontology. Seeing is being...perception as touching, as contact, become a perception." [3]

Viola's approach to art, as well as to life, has been informed and shaped by a wide-range of sources, from philosophy to poetry to religious traditions. Inarguably, the lyrical poetry of the Sufi Jallaludin Rumi (1207-1273) has been a tremendous inspiration, but Viola has studied and integrated the teachings of other mystics, East and West, such as Chuang Tzu and St. John of the Cross; Chinese Taoism; Zen Buddhism; Eastern art; the writings of Sri Lankan art historian A.K. Coomaraswarmy; and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and Walt Whitman, to name a few. Interweaving many disciplines and philosophies, embracing the latest discoveries in video production, Viola has for nearly four decades investigated "life itself."

1. Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings, 1973-1994 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1995), 152.

2. Ibid., 149.

3. Ibid., 260.

Adapted from

  • "The Crossing," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Bonnie Pitman (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 347.
  • DMA unpublished material.