Interview with Bill Viola: An encounter between art and Faith at St Paul's

The pioneering video artist discusses his new commission for St Paul’s Cathedral in London


Bill Viola has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art. He creates his work in Long Beach, California, in a large studio where his productions are staged, and where his works are fabricated, tested and shipped. He has an office with a staff of four, managed by his wife and studio executive director, Kira Perov, and a small private house, where I meet him for this interview. It is a cosy, wooden, grey building, on a quiet street. Here, he works on his own without any electronic equipment except a small computer, a photocopier, and his substantial library. Viola and Perov moved here in the 1980s, after spending a-year-and-a-half in Japan, a culture that he says “changed [his] life completely”.

The walls and floors are covered with books, newspaper clippings, poems, notes, postcards, music and even a meditation table. Two bookshelves are devoted to the books and personal notes he has been gathering over the past five years for a major commission to create two permanent digital altarpieces at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The subjects are Mary and the Martyrs. The commission forms part of the St Paul’s Cathedral Arts Project, an ongoing programme that seeks to explore the encounter between art and faith. It has the support of the Dean and Chapter and the Cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee. When I arrive, he is listening to Indian music by one of his favourite musicians, Hariprasad Chaurasia, the contemporary master of the bamboo flute.

The Art Newspaper: You seem to be obsessed with capturing the essence of feeling. Your works are very intense and emotional.

Bill Viola: That’s true…my work is a catharsis for me. I deal with the fragility of the human condition: birth, death, transcendence, revelation, suffering. Sometimes this room becomes unbearably claustrophobic and I break down. Other times it is pure ecstasy. Either way the most important dimension in this room is not physical—it is the passage of time. The perception of Mary and the Martyrs through time will be the key to the St Paul’s altarpieces.

TAN: A large part of your studio is full of sources for the St Paul’s project. Besides studying books, have you been travelling around to explore other altars or cathedrals?

BV: Not too much. My sources are usually derived from texts and, to a lesser extent, images. I spent a lot of time in cathedrals when I was younger, experiencing the spaces and making image and sound recordings, but this time I didn’t want to get into that too deeply. As my Zen teacher used to say: “Part of you must always be empty…if you fill yourself up completely there is no space for anything else.”

TAN: You deal with the latest material technology but you seem to have an almost medieval sense of a spiritual universe. How do you resolve that?

BV: The two are actually very close. I see the digital age as the joining of the material and the spiritual into a yet-to-be-determined whole. I don’t think it is mere coincidence that in the early 21st century we are describing both the human body and advanced technology as forms of code. A code is intangible and invisible, and as we are all discovering, it is now the invisible things that most affect our lives, for better or worse. The Middle Ages were also a time when the invisible world was a daily reality. That’s why they painted the sky gold in the paintings, not blue. The blue of the sky was considered to be a façade, while the real was an invisible presence, made known through the medium of light, and described, Zen-like, as “a circle whose centre is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere”. This sounds just like the internet.

TAN: This isn’t the first time you have created work for a church.

BV: No, it’s not. In 1996 I created a new piece for Durham Cathedral, a magnificent tenth-century church in the north of England. It was a large projection installation called The Messenger, and it was also a special commission for the Anglican Church, my first. Shortly afterwards, they purchased the work, and it went on to be shown in churches, museums, arts festivals and other public venues in the UK, including St Paul’s in London, and then around Europe and as far away as Australia.

TAN: For the project with St Paul’s, are you drawing on wider sources than Christianity?

BV: I am being asked to make a work for a major Christian church, and first and foremost that is my focus. However, the figure of Mary is, by this point in history, practically universally known. The notion of the Divine Feminine, what the Hindus call Mahadevi, the Great Mother, ultimately derives from the feminine principle in the cosmos. She exists in practically every culture on the planet, and can be traced back to prehistoric times. Her influence has been growing stronger, in Christianity since the late Middle Ages, and in contemporary culture from the energy of the women’s movement and issues of women’s rights and health around the world.

I also see a strong connection between the symbolism of Mary and the current environmental crisis. Mother Earth is wounded and suffering, and I think it will not just be technology, but the feminine powers that will be required to restore balance and equilibrium. As the spread of information technology and travel brings the world closer together, it is essential that familiarity between religions continue to grow, especially in these times of discontent and violence. Stepping back, we see that the Christian Mary is part of a long line of feminine archetypes that appear throughout most cultures in times of crisis that require inner strength, compassion and healing.

TAN: Are you planning to film with a real woman, representing Mary?

BV: Yes, but it’s not a biography. I may film several women—I’m not sure yet. It will involve the landscape. The strength of Mary lies in having been represented in many ways. Mary is a powerful symbol for much of what we go through in our lives…love, beauty, compassion, joy, ecstasy, revelation, perseverance, pain, suffering, fear, loss. The power of film is not in the reproduction of visual perception, but in the ability to create metaphor and emulate consciousness, like a dream, and it is our dreams that sustain us.

TAN: Why have you decided to shoot some of the Mary sequence in the desert?

BV: Mary represents nature, not only aesthetically but philosophically and spiritually. Mary is about looking outwards while martyrdom is about looking inwards. The Martyrs are the opposing image to Mary’s fertile creativity and openness to the light. They are confined to a dark corner of human cruelty, but within them there is an infinite dimension, as infinite as the stars and heaven. So the two subjects form a beautiful relationship—one reaching outward to new life and light, the other inward, sacrificing life for something greater.

TAN: Tell me about the second altarpiece on the subject of martyrdom.

BV: The word “martyr” in ancient Greek means “witness.” It involves “bearing witness” for one’s beliefs, or standing up to one’s convictions in the face of hardship or even death…

Martyrdom is very political right now…The guys who are being accused of planning the destruction of the World Trade Center will be tried, and it will be very intense and emotional for everybody. For this project I chose not to deal with the political aspects but instead focus on the personal and existential dimensions. The question of martyrdom for me goes to the very root of who we are. What would you be willing to give your life for? Would you be willing to die for your convictions? These are among the ultimate questions, because in the human equation, death is part of life.

TAN: It is a challenging project in many ways. To the best of my knowledge, it will be the first time a video altarpiece will be permanently installed in a church.

BV: I try not to think about that. I need to maintain focus on the work. I’ve never done anything quite like this. It is both thrilling and daunting. The works will be there, in a space I don’t control, and in a place that has functions other than a gallery—although churches and museums seem to me to be very similar places. I remember seeing people in the Met crying in front of a Vermeer. In the end I hope the final pieces at St Paul’s will function both as aesthetic, conceptual objects of art and as practical objects of contemplation and personal devotion.

TAN: What writing has particularly influenced you?

BV: The 20th-century art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy’s The Transformation of Nature in Art [Harvard University Press, 1934] is my Bible. Reading that in 1980 was the big turning point of my career. Finally someone was telling me that art comes from the inside of life, not the outside. Western art history for the most part is based on looking at objects, materials, effects and influences. Coomaraswamy showed me in fact that museums are the places where we put the things that we’ve forgotten how to use. Isn’t that wonderful? We constantly seem to be looking at life through the wrong end of the binoculars.

TAN: You were a pioneer of video art, but now it is everywhere and anyone can use the technology. Is that changing what video art is?

BV: I think “video art” is today being perceived more as a historical period or a technical style, while the techniques and visual language it spawned are melding and morphing into the larger media landscape. The further we move into the digital age, the more the various media, old and new, merge and amalgamate. I think we will begin to describe technology more as a language and less as an assemblage of hardware.

The electronic image, in the form of “video,” was the first technology in the history of art that appeared more or less simultaneously on all continents on earth. It wasn’t like the Van Eyck brothers perfecting oil painting in the 15th century before anyone else, and then watching it very gradually spread. Video was based on a commercial device invented by Sony—the portable video recorder—and the company’s global sales and shipping network allowed the device to be simultaneously marketed at Sony showrooms around the world. Then I realise in actuality the media revolution hasn’t been all that fast.

In my 38-year career in media art, it has only been in the last few years that I have had the full range of my medium at my disposal with the arrival of the high definition format. Now for the first time, it is my artistic choice, and not the limits of some commercial product, whether I use the lowest, most primitive image quality or the highest. It has taken a lifetime to get to this point.

TAN: Are you surprised by the sort of prices that art attracts?

BV: A friend once said to me: “I’d rather see more millionaire artists than millionaire arms dealers.” If someone has to be wealthy, I’d rather have Damien Hirst than a nuclear scientist. But that price system is a separate thing and as an artist you cannot focus on that too much. If I reached the point in which my whole market collapsed, I would still be making art.

TAN: Why is art so precious to you?

BV: We live in a world in which every image is manipulated to get something from you, whether it is your money, your political loyalties, your beliefs, your personal tastes, or your life. Art is one of the few things left in the public discourse in which the voice from the artist is going directly to the viewer without a bunch of middlemen influencing and changing the message.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bill Viola at the altar'