Close-Up and Personal ; on the Eve of His Show at the National Gallery, Bill Viola Tells Doris Lockhart Saatchi about Video Art with Added Passion

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BILL VIOLA'S art is famously difficult. And not just because of the content. To begin with, the American artist makes video art, a form that requires time on the part of the viewer. And that is something contemporary audiences seem reluctant to part with. In a recent and curiously ill-reasoned Sunday magazine article, one British critic even pronounced that video art "can't be proper art" because "it takes too long". Research indicates that, on average, museum visitors spend 30 seconds in front of each work of static art. That's not much for a photograph or painting, say, but it doesn't begin to do justice to a video tape or projection that may run for 20 minutes.

Viola's work is also particularly tough to deal with, at least compared to the quick-fix output of Cool Britannia, because it depicts in intimate physical detail the most private human experiences and evokes strong emotional responses - the kind of responses that haven't been fashionable in art for some time. "I want," says Viola, as we discuss this prior to the press launch of his new London show, "to part the curtain that is normally drawn over the most mysterious moments in life." If that sounds like New Age rhetoric or religious exhortation, you'll have to take my word that it doesn't sound that way when Viola delivers it. Granted, he is from California (born in 1951, he lives in Long Beach, with his two sons and his wife, arts administrator and photographer, Kira Perov) and admits to such influences as Buddhism, readings from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and studies of the ancient Greek idea of the "pneuma" or "breath of the cosmos". But he comes across in person as an intelligent, humorous individual with a professional interest in the inner lives of his fellow human beings. Like a psychiatrist, perhaps, or novelist, but not an ageing West Coast flower child.

As if its form and spiritual content weren't offputting enough, Viola's work relates in no uncertain terms to Renaissance paintings, not normally a favoured subject of contemporary art aficionados. Yet Bill Viola is a huge success. When an exhibition of his work was presented in London a few years ago at the f Anthony d'Offay Gallery, 50,000 people came to see it. His piece The Messenger was installed to much acclaim for a month in 1996 at Durham Cathedral, and his 1993 installation at London's Whitechapel Gallery drew rave reviews.

Given the influences and concerns in his work, it is not entirely surprising that Viola should be the first contemporary artist to have a solo exhibition, 14 works collectively called The Passions, at London's National Gallery, or that those works should seem right at home in the Sainsbury Wing, with the museum's collection of 15th- century devotional paintings.

Viola's own artistic conversion dates from a visit to the Chicago Institute of Art in the Seventies, when his father was dying. His response to a Renaissance painting that he saw there was to break down in tears. "For the first time in my life," he says, "I realised I was using a piece of art rather than just appreciating it." As a result Viola developed an interest in the nature and expression of human emotions, such as the question of whether crying is a sign of suffering or release from it. "Look at the poses in early art," he says. "They come from a deeper place - they're part of our natural physical reactions." In other words they're instinctive, and Renaissance artists were very good observers of human behaviour. Since then, he has sought to make art that is a starting point for meditation or a deep internal experience and which, in doing so, appropriates the techniques, visual references and, above all, explicit emotional content of paintings made half a millennium ago.

Until that pivotal moment in Chicago, Viola had been, as he puts it, "messing around" in the technical department of Syracuse University's School of Art in New York state, playing the drums in a rock'n'roll band, studying photography - which, he says, he "didn't do that well" - and making installations that included images on TV monitors and performance. …