In 1973, fresh out of Syracuse University, the video artist Bill Viola went to visit a friend in San Francisco who took him straight from the airport to a camping trip in the desert. "We drove down to Death Valley and arrived at Zabriskie Point at midnight under a full moon. In the next two days, my life was changed," Viola recalled recently. "I realized that, growing up in New York, I'd never seen 75 miles straight in front of me in all directions at once.
"Two things happen. Your self shrinks to an insignificant black speck on the face of the planet that could be flicked off at any moment, like a little bug. You become humbled by the scope. The second thing that happens is your self expands. When you engage something in vision, literally a part of you goes out 75 miles to touch that, and you realize that what you see is not separate from your self."
Mr. Viola's experience in the desert, which he calls "a revelation in perception," has had a profound effect on the body of work he has created over the last 15 years. And this effect can be witnessed in the 20 videotapes and three installations that the Museum of Modern Art compiled in seven separate programs for a retrospective survey.
Again and again Mr. Viola's video work returns to the double-sided theme of reflection -- the world within the self, and the self reflected in nature. One of his earliest videotapes, the seven-minute "Migration," made in 1976, progresses through a series of slow dissolves to an extreme close-up of the artist's face mirrored in a drop of water -- a reference to William Blake's "world in a grain of sand." And his most recent and longest work, the 90-minute "I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like," is a free-floating meditation on the life cycle that juxtaposes scenes of The Artist at Work with placid shots of birds' eyeballs and ecstatic scenes from a firewalking ritual in Fiji.
What critics have described as his poetic imagery, conceptual purity and technical mastery have placed Bill Viola at the top of his field alongside such video pioneers as Nam June Paik and Mary Lucier.
He began working with video at a time when the medium was still very primitive. Influenced by structuralist film makers of the 1960s like Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow, Mr. Viola and other video artists concentrated first on formal exercises aimed at defining the qualities peculiar to video. After exploring and absorbing each new innovation in video equipment -- color photography, computer editing and especially portable cameras -- he eventually made the leap from an exclusive preoccupation with form and technique to a concern with content in "Chott el-Djerid (A Portrait in Light and Heat)," shot in the Sahara Desert in Tunisia in 1979.
Going to the desert "wasn't about trying to impose my preconceived idea onto a location, but about meeting a friend, trying to be in a place that would give me things and teach me things, too," said Mr. Viola during an interview in an office overlooking the garden at the Museum of Modern Art. The extreme conditions of heat and light he encountered while shooting "Chott el-Djerid" on the Sahara provided an opportunity to reflect on the mirage-like qualities of video and the overwhelming power of sound (whether howling wind or utter silence), two of Mr. Viola's ongoing fascinations. And the shimmering sensuality of his manipulation of color and time in "Chott el-Djerid" has prompted some critics to compare Viola to Monet and Delacroix.
But like his earlier experience in Death Valley, being in the desert had a spiritual element as well. Observing the Bedouins living in brush houses in the midst of a seemingly uninhabitable landscape, he recognized the connection between religious faith and the desert terrain. "Since the time of St. Jerome, it was mandatory for any kind of scholar or thinker to spend time out in the desert in solitude. It's no coincidence that the desert has been a major part of the visionary or mystical experience from the beginning of time."
An opportunity to observe a totally different landscape arose when Mr. Viola received a Creative Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1980, which allowed him to live for a year in Japan, where he studied calligraphy, Zen meditation and traditional Japanese culture. At the end of the year, inspired to record his impressions of Japan in a videotape, he talked his way into an unprecedented artist-in-residency at the Sony Corporation's Atsugi Laboratory. "It was great," he recalled. "It was like going to a marble quarry in Italy if you're a sculptor and seeing how they make the stuff you've been using."
With state-of-the-art equipment lent by Sony, he made "Hatsu-Yume (First Dream)," which was a breakthrough for Mr. Viola both in its length (nearly an hour) and its visual opulence. In the final sequence of this piece, the artist distills his penchant for using a slow accretion of concrete images to arrive at something quite abstract. A shot of street signs seen through the rain flowing across the windshield of a moving car becomes a lush composition of color and light unmoored to any physical object.
"I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like," Mr. Viola's most ambitious undertaking to date, began with an impulse to work with animals, and indeed the work features footage of bison, birds, fish, an elephant, a zebra, a house cat, an attack dog and a chick hatching from an egg. Perhaps the most striking thing about this footage is the absence of the all-knowing voiceover that customarily accompanies nature photography on television programs. Instead, Mr. Viola favors ambient sound and long, uncut takes that reveal the strangeness, spirituality, even humor of his subjects.
The first section, "Il Corpo Scuro," is the product of two weeks observing bison in South Dakota; it ranges from gruesome close-ups of flies swarming around the head of a dead beast to a long shot of a bison urinating for what becomes a comical length of time. In the second section, "The Language of the Birds," it takes a while to realize that the viewer has been eyeball to eyeball with birds and fish for several uninterrupted minutes. The final shot of this section is the pupil of an owl's eye reflecting the artist -- another of Mr. Viola's signature images.
But what began as a piece about animals became, said Mr. Viola, a study of larger questions about human beings: As creatures of the late 20th century, involved with our books and magazines and television and our computers and our credit cards and our condominiums, where do we belong in the natural order? And where does the desire for knowledge and spiritual transcendence fit into the physical and biological world?
The first third of the piece focuses on the natural behavior of animals, and the second third focuses on the domestic behavior of intellectual man -- the artist himself reading, writing, editing videotape and eating. After an adrenalin-producing transitional section of flashing light and rhythm, the piece ends with the extraordinary scenes of Fijians in trances walking on red-hot coals, eating fire and pushing brass skewers through the skin of their eyebrows, earlobes, lips, cheeks, arms and backs. This sequence, shot at the Mahadevi Temple in Suva, documents a Hindu purification ritual performed annually for the good of the community.
The connections between these various sections are not explicit. "As with poetry, there's a cloud of meaning rather than a single point of meaning," Mr. Viola said. "For me, making the piece was about drawing a line between instinct and intellect, using the body as a model. The rational world seems to be separate and opposite from the animal world, yet the purest act of reflex or instinct -- putting your finger in the fire and drawing it back -- connects us to the animal world.
"Ibin Arabi, a 12th-century Sufi writer I've been interested in, says that the way to approach the highest state of divinity, beyond human capacity, is to go to the bottom first, to go beneath animality. Thinking about that progression of things, I realized that the loop that's created in mind-over-matter. For me, the Western method of rational thinking fails because it doesn't encompass the whole of the body and mind together, whereas the firewalkers carry the quest for knowledge through in a more traditional way, using the mortification of the body to transcend the self. You can go back to the fire, focus your mind, and put your hand right in it."
"I Do Not Know What It Is I Am Like" (the title comes from a scared Hindu verse in the Rig Veda) has been shown to critical acclaim in galleries across the country and on public television, but it's not likely to crash the home video market anytime soon. Compared to the pace of, say, music videos on MTV, Mr. Viola's work is glacially slow. And unlike most broadcast television, it is clearly an acquired taste.
This doesn't displease the artist. "Video artists being at the low end of the totem pole economically, one of the ways we survive is to go around showing work and giving these talks," said Mr. Viola. "I learn a lot about my work presenting it to the public. Besides, I like it when groups of people do things together. Historically, that's what culture was -- groups of people playing music together, singing, dancing. In the media period now, it gets focused on the individual, which is quite bizarre. Culture now is about you alone. You don't even see movies together, because everybody sits at home watching the VCR. For people in previous eras, that would be the antithesis of culture."
New York Times, 1988