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Bill Viola, Artist of Video Art

Irina Vernichenko, “Art &signature’s” interviewed Aleksandra Danilova, curator and Director of the Sector of the Western art at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum to find out more behind Bill Viola’s videoart.

Irina Vernichenko: The exhibitions of Bill Viola were recently showed at Palazzo Reale, in Milan (11 — 06. 2023) and in the Pushkin Museum (2020). Did Bill Viola create videoart “from scratch” or did he take inspiration from other artists? Is academic style a part of his art?

Aleksandra Danilova: To say, that Bill Viola depends on someone, would be incorrect, because Bill Viola – is one of the artists, which have created video art. He began making videos back in the 1960s-70s. The next generation of artists is more influenced by Bill Viola, than he himself is influenced by someone else.

He begins with some of the easiest techniques, the video itself interests him. One of the characteristic features of Bill Viola’s art is that he does not use either montage or editing. All is due to the camera, the speed of filming, simple projection methods, but all that leads to fantastic results.

When you see Bill Viola’s works, it is clear, that he uses video as a certain medium, and that he is an artist in the classic meaning of that word. His works may seem academic, as a matter-of-fact Bill Viola is about art: through means of video, he creates «a painting “.


Bill Viola, «Quintet», image from exhibition «Art&signatures»

The “Quintet” was created after his internship in Getti, in a famous organization, with a brilliant art collection, based on classic art. Bill Viola received a grant there to study human emotions.

As always, for Bill Viola the subject remains behind the scenes. We see five people, which all feel different emotions, and these are extremely tense emotions, which change in front of our eyes from tranquility to desperation, and vice versa. For the artist, it is important to focus on an emotion, which becomes visible and dissects into certain components, when we see every minute detail.

IV: Is there aestheticism in this?

AD: Preraphaelites movement is aestheticism, when aesthetics is introduced into a certain situation. Some of Bill Viola’s works are sharp. Using simple techniques: filming through the water’s surface, slow motion, accelerated filming, he turns reality into a high-level generalization. As should happen in art, more global subjects are being talked about through filming reality. It cannot be said that he shows the aesthetics of reality.


If the «Quintet» is based on a modern plot, then in the «Greeting» the artist begins to openly refer to the images of classical painting, which he rethinks within the framework of a new medium. It can be a Renaissance painting and French art from the 19th century.

Bill Viola, «Greeting», image from exhibition «Art&signatures»

Two women meet on the street, throw bags, hug. Stretched out in time and space, this meeting has a metaphorical meaning, we see how Bill Viola rhymes in composition and color this meeting with the meeting of St. Mary and St. Elizabeth.

IV: What is the main «nerve» of his art?

AD: As an artist who has studied emotions, Bill Viola knows exactly the strings of emotions, and catches you on the hook with his quasi-emotionality, on the one hand and with impeccable form, on the other hand.


«Raft» is one of my favorite works. Bill Viola dramatizes the terrible story of the «Raft of Medusa « by Theodore Gericault, inviting sitters for painting and pouring water on them, so that people seem to face the elements.

Bill Viola, «Raft», image from exhibition «Art&signatures»

IV: Does he use slow motion filming?

AD: He uses a rapid-motion camera recording 45 frames per second, and then puts this film on conventional projection equipment. A very large slowdown occurs — one second of the film goes on for a minute, as a result. all emotions, all facial expressions, gestures — everything becomes visible and has hypertrophied meaning.

The crowd is washed away with a jet of water for 10 seconds — Bill Viola turns into a drama: people cover themselves with their hands, the elements seem to triumph and defeat the person.

This is probably the most powerful work of Viola.  I was amazed when I found out that this is an allusion to the «Raft of Medusa » by Gericault, and if you remember the plot of the «Raft of Medusa «: people float on a raft for many days in the ocean, without hope of salvation, and remember the history of art, then the theme of fate, which subdues people ,who are trying to defy the elements. is understandable.

Bill Viola, like Michelangelo, managed to get into the nerve of time. His works have an almost hypnotic effect. In fact, they are — this is my subjective opinion — flawless from an artistic point of view. The momentary becomes eternal for him, the artist’s images begin to launch a cultural code inside us, sometimes this code may not be embedded in a trivially filmed plot.

IV: Can it be interpreted in a simple way: Bill Viola is understandable to everyone, perhaps because of the proximity to the advertising poster?

AD: Modern perception is both in posters and in the notorious clip consciousness.

IV: Everyone has a camera and a phone, and video art is available to each of us, why are Bill Viola and a few other names in the collections of museums? What makes a video a work of art?

AD: Joseph Beuys said: «Every person is an artist, at least on the scale of his own life.» if you want to live your life as an artist, then you can do it, however not everyone who picks up a camera wants to make an artistic statement out of it.

There is a concept of Kosuth, who said that «the value of an artwork is measured by how much it transforms the cultural space around it». I think this is described by the word «brightness»; it causes a kind of mutation around. As long as a work of art lives in the cultural space, it is important and significant.

Which work is momentary? If an artist, and this applies to Bill Viola, manages to grasp some global themes and notices something pivotal that exists, then his art is not momentary. Work that has an actual agenda will leave together with this actual agenda.


Now all Bill Viola’s exhibitions are designed by Kira Perov, who has been his assistant and co-author since the 70s. Bill Viola says: «Kira knows much better how my work is arranged from a technical point of view, than I do.»

Bill Viola’s studio has serious requirements for the exhibition of the works. It is impossible to simply take a projector and place the works in the museum hall, the exhibition is carefully calculated: the screen must be of certain sizes, there must be a certain type of projector and verified, correct distances to the screen and the correct proportions of the figures, All this suggests that perception is very accurate, the artist creates not only a picture, but an installation, and technical the characteristics of the display are no less important than what will happen on the screen.

We did this project in 2020, the year of the pandemic, it was amazing experience, the first experience of working online, we received files from the artist along with instructions, blueprints and videos, and then we sent the blueprints, later the installation was done by video connection.

Aleksandra Danilova
curator and Director of the Sector of the Western art at the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum