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Interview with Bill Viola on new work Love/Death: Video is "about really seeing, not just stopping at the surface"

This month, the US artist is unveiling an ambitious new project in London based on his re-working of a Wagner opera

Over the last 25 years Bill Viola, along with his wife and close collaborator Kira Perov, has transformed video art. His achievements are striking, not only in pushing the actual physical boundaries of the genre but also in shifting its status and reception. The Metropolitan Museum purchased The Greeting (1995) as the first video in their collection while the Tate in London, the Whitney Museum in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris collaborated for the first time to jointly buy Five Angels for the Millennium in 2002. Plans are now afoot for Viola to create a major new work for St Paul’s Cathedral in London in 2007. London will also play host to Viola’s most ambitious exhibition yet, a presentation of over ten new works opening on 21 June, a vast installation held simultaneously at Haunch of Venison gallery and a specially hired secondary venue by Tower Bridge.

The Art Newspaper: Your show at Haunch of Venison, Love/Death, uses many revised elements from your recent opera production of Tristan, a re-working of Wagner’s 19th-century opera.

Bill Viola: This was a hugely stressful project which strained our marriage, our family, our bank account; it just kept getting bigger. I spent three months writing, thinking, gestating this massive piece, trying to get my arms around Wagner. We shot for five months, I must have been in editing mode for a solid year and a half, mining this vast amount of gathered material.

TAN: Is making your work about the filming or the editing?

BV: No, it’s the editing. The filming is like a sculptor gathering trash or going into nature and finding stones, bringing back the marble; that’s a vital step. Then it’s in the room with you and the real creative stuff begins. It’s like a chess game; I figure out as many of the moves as I can inside. When I’m absolutely sure of what I want to do, I start working. You can see in these notebooks, the very first thing I did for Tristan was make a drawing, a proper sketch of a tree. You know my art school training occasionally comes in handy in the actual work I’m doing! I read and hand-copy a lot, I copy out a lot of quotes longhand, huge sections; if I write the quotes out I remember them.

TAN: So you’re not thinking immediately in images?

BV: No, here I’m copying out sources, myths of the middle ages, Tantra, Sufi concepts. Look at this little drawing…it’s ascent and descent, images of the sea and the forest and cliffs, that’s the infrastructure of the opera. The work Tristan’s Ascension totally comes out of this tiny drawing back in February 2004, it wasn’t even conscious, it’s about letting your brain loosen up. There are detailed notes, here are over 20 pages copied out by me from this text on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Then usually what happens is the drawings increase and the writing dwindles, I start making charts that list all the possible visual elements.

TAN: The most recurrent visual element in your work reminds me of that poem “Water” by the poet Philip Larkin: “If I were called in to construct a religion, I should make use of water…”

BV: It’s just this amazing thing, life-giving and life-taking. Our bodies are water, the universe is solvent, water is where we come from, where we’ll return to and in this age of global warming, it’s going to be very important! Water also has reflective properties, it’s where earliest man saw his own image for the first time, it’s the source of the very first images, it’s the only natural reflective surface other than the human eye itself.

TAN: Your process is heavily text-based and so much is written about your art, but your actual works never uses text or even language.

BV: The one thing I am aware of is that for me images are fundamentally non-visual. The visual part of an image is just like the tip of the iceberg. Art historians work backwards from the tip of the iceberg to describe the hidden substructure that goes out into culture and history, time and space. What artists do is actually work in the opposite direction, where they’re unconsciously moving around in these spaces, and things are coalescing and then they realise they can break the surface, and here’s the piece. So for me writing is the best way to enter this work; I end up writing what something feels like to experience, rather than what it looks like.

TAN: So an image is much more than just an image, it has other meanings?

BV: Yes, and I think the current media age we’re living in now functions that way, it is actually embodying an ancient human structure of consciousness, of awareness. These media tools are doing just that, the little image that appears on your cell phone is actually the tip of this massive root system that’s just arriving at your phone at that moment. Because the visual image is the most efficient way to communicate with the physiological apparatus of our bodies. These things have always existed before as archetypes, the desire you might have to talk to your mother who is thousands of miles away is physically embodied in the cell phone.

TAN: And we’re here in a conventional, commercial Los Angeles editing suite.

BV: Actually this was one of the first places doing high-definition work in Hollywood. George Lucas used this studio. Michael Mann made that great film “Collateral” with Tom Cruise here. We hear them making commercials and pop videos in the next room. I feel like the commercial world is trying to seep through the cracks here and we’re just holding them off in this room!

TAN: Is the slowness of your own work in opposition to the increasing speed of our image culture?

BV: That’s a very tricky, loaded area, especially in America. Just by my nature I’ve always been drawn to slowing things down, really out of a desire to see things more completely, to quell the clutter and the agitated stream of stuff that’s coming at you constantly, so you can feel yourself living, thinking, breathing. It just so happened that this technology came along, the video camera, that I latched onto as a way to see between the cracks, to point my camera at things people don’t normally film, to see beyond into a darker place. The irony is that the technology I am using is the very same technology that has increasingly sped things up, packing more information into every second. So I don’t feel like I’m crusading to slow the world down but I am interested and concerned with sentient awareness. Video is meditative because it’s this narrow tube just focused on this one thing, you can use it like a laser, like an x-ray to go inside. It’s about really seeing, not just stopping at the surface.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bill Viola’s x-ray vision'