Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Interview: Bill Viola

Magazine article The Spectator

Arts Interview: Bill Viola

Article excerpt

What is it about Bill Viola's films that reduce grown-ups to tears? William Cook dries his eyes and talks to the video artist about Zen, loss and nearly drowning

Even the most down-to-earth people get emotional about Bill Viola's videos. Clare Lilley of Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) seems close to tears as she takes me round his new show. Lilley is the show's curator. She's usually so matter-of-fact, but when she talks about Viola her eyes light up. When she took her two teenage daughters to his studio in Los Angeles, she tells me, they both cried when they saw his films. I like to think I'm made of sterner stuff, but when she leaves me in the Sculpture Park's Underground Gallery, where Viola is on show, after a few minutes in there on my own I'm blubbing like a baby. What is it about Bill Viola that makes grown men (and women) weep?

Bill Viola is usually described as a video artist, but his short, silent films are more like Renaissance paintings. Not much happens, but every moment feels full of meaning. Like religious iconography, his work addresses birth and death, and love and grief. It's really no surprise that he's often shown in churches. His work is currently in St Paul's Cathedral, and in an old chapel here at YSP. It feels like the perfect place for his dreamlike art.

We meet at YSP, in a function room strewn with balloons and bunting. Viola's Australian wife, Kira Perov, is a constant presence by his side. He met her on a trip to Melbourne in 1977. They've worked together ever since. 'I couldn't do this without Kira,' says Viola. He has the visions, the flashes of inspiration -- she sorts out everything else. 'These are all his ideas, and I help make them happen,' says Kira. It's like the relationship between a director and a producer, or an old master and his studio. Despite its slick production values, his work is actually quite traditional. There's no computer trickery -- he uses real people and real materials.

Bill and Kira visited YSP for the first time last year and loved it. 'It's life-affirming,' says Viola. You can see why he likes it here. Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a place where families measure out their lives: weekends, bank holidays, the excursions that punctuate each passing year. Viola's art is also about families, and the remorseless march of time. 'The only thing you need to do is make sure you leave something behind,' he tells me, solemnly. He doesn't seem like an artist, more like a shaman or a priest.

Viola was born in New York in 1951, and enjoyed a conventional middle-class childhood. His dad worked for Pan Am. His parents weren't particularly arty, but Bill could draw. He can still recall one of his earliest art classes, in kindergarten. While his classmates doodled, Viola drew a whirlwind. His teacher told him to stand up. 'Look, children -- look what little Billy did!' she told them. 'What have you done?' she asked him, still not entirely sure what his dramatic drawing was supposed to be. 'I'm making a tornado,' he told her. He's been making tornadoes ever since.

'Tristan's Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall)', 2005, by Bill Viola

Viola's father persuaded him to go to university instead of art school, but far from thwarting his creativity, this turned out to be a lucky break. …

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