COOL was born in hope of becoming a bridge to let the art lovers all over the world inspire each other, link together as one, and create a new future in arts. The main contents consist of interviews of both New York-based and international artists and creators, special feature articles, art reports from around the world, reviews and column series. We contribute to the cultural exchange through arts and to the development of the art industry so that people in the world can enjoy arts casually and New York and major cities in the world can connect through the media COOL.
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As one of the pioneers in the video arts, Bill Viola has been highly recognized internationally. Since 1970, he has been making video arts and had numerous successful exhibitions in Europe as well as in the United States. He has worked closely with his wife and partner Kira Perov since the late 70s. The themes of most of his works, which draw people into their worlds, are the principles of human beings, “birth” and “death.” He admits that he received much influence by Japanese tradition and culture when he spent several years in Japan in the 80’s. From October 14, for the first time in Asia, a large-scale retrospective exhibition has been held at the MORI ART MUSEUM in Roppongi, Tokyo. COOL got a chance to interview Viola at the studio in Long Beach, California, where now he is based. Viola speaks about his life before video arts and what his artistic activities should be.

COOL: What was your childhood like?

BILL VIOLA: I grew up in Queens, New York. There were so many kids of various ethnic backgrounds in that concentrated area, and we always had so many people to be with and play with. It was an incredible American mix, so diverse and wonderful. I didn't have any real experience with nature while growing up, though. My biggest memory which influenced my work was going to the beach in the summertime because I had never seen that kind of big sky and empty space in New York. That made a big impression on me.

C: How did you get involved in art?

B: My mom encouraged me to draw when I was 3, so I started to draw pictures of houses, boats, and people from my mind. My parents and the rest of the family, aunts and uncles and so on, were always very interested in whatever I was drawing. Then, on the very first day of kindergarten, I made a finger painting of a tornado. When the teacher saw my picture, she held it up in front of the whole class to see. Of course I felt very embarrassed because I was shy (laughs). But from that point on, that began to happen quite frequently through all grades whenever I would draw pictures.

C: Who are the biggest influences for you?

B: That's a tough question… Probably, Nam June Paik gave me the most encouragement, confidence and opportunity. He recommended me for the different grants and encouraged me to have exhibitions. I would say I was more influenced by his total life as an artist, rather than any specific works. The other person who was very influential to me was David Tudor, one of the great avant-garde musicians of the 20th century. I first met him in 1973 at a music workshop because at the time I was studying electronic music as well as visual art. I worked with him for 8 years doing performances. Though Tudor was very quiet and didn't talk so much, he was a very, very special man with strong inner being. And that was how he was teaching us, through presence. He taught me a lot about sound and space, and that greatly influenced my video making.

C: In what moment do you feel pleasure as an artist?

B: When I go to sleep (laughs)! I mean, for me, making art is not pleasant. There are moments when it is, but most of time it involves struggling with something unknown. When I go to bed every night in the middle of a project, I lie awake feeling very tense, thinking about what I did wrong or what I should do better. So, unlike making tables where you know when you are done, my artwork is never finished in a way. It's a lot of hard work and I never really feel satisfied. We are all, by nature, incomplete, and the artist knows a special part of that incompleteness. You make works not because you know the answer, but because of a question. You make works to fill the empty space that you feel.

C: How and where do you get ideas from?

B: I never really had a problem getting ideas. You see these books right there on the bookshelf? I have whole piles of notebooks filled with ideas. I know that I'm only going to make a small percentage of all the things that flow through me. The problem is the making of them. I have to decide which one is the right one to make at this time. You can think of an incredible thing in your mind, but you have to act in a physical world. If you don't act, you die. The whole question of quality is about the intention of action.

C: What do you want the audience to think or feel by seeing your work?

B: I don't care, as long as it is their own idea or feeling. Today, we are so used to being manipulated by the mass media that we automatically give our minds and conscious awareness to any image or enticement that comes along. For an audience member to think on their own requires a tremendous effort because they are normally never asked to do so. If people are only given coca-cola to drink and then one day someone gives them pure spring water to drink, they won't like the taste. The accommodation to avant-garde art in the 20th century was about acquiring a new taste. It takes a long time, as we have seen. People's perceiving minds normally are not open and clear. The mirror has become cloudy and dusty. The inner image has become suppressed or forgotten. In the age of experts people don't feel empowered enough to have confidence in their own ideas and opinions. They want me to explain my work to them. But whatever the personal connection you have with my work is 100% true and real. Whatever you think the work is, then that is what it is. There is no right or wrong in Art.

C: Why do you often choose to use “birth” and “death” as themes for your works?

B: Because these are the two basic principles of human existence. In 1988, Kira and I had our first child. I was there holding him when he was born. It was an experience that changed my life. I felt like I'd just seen a miracle. And in 1991, when my mother died, I was holding her hand at her bedside. That experience was even more shocking and difficult. Once I experienced "birth" and "death" only 3 years apart, I no longer could consider making just a static image nor allow myself to make something that was only nice to look at. After these experiences, I had to make something meaningful in terms of these profound mysteries of human life, both beautiful and disturbing.

C: How do you want the audience to accept the fact of "death" ?

B: What's important is not to take "death" as a negative thing. Obviously it is sad and tragic, but it's part of the natural cycle and one of the deepest teachings of human experience.

C: Why do you use slow motion in your videos frequently?

B: In the natural world, human beings can live for 70 or 80 years, while flies live for only a few days. All living beings have very different perceptions of time frames and time scales. There are so many things happening in our lives that are too fast or too slow for us to perceive. For example, if you are in a car accident you may only consciously realize what happened after it's over. You reflect and reconstruct what had happened in your mind afterwards. Using slow motion allows me to extend the time frame of an event while it is happening so that people can reflect and experience it in a deeper way.

C: Do you think that the development of the technology has helped you expand your ways of expression?

B: Absolutely. When I chose this medium in 1970, its technology was much different than what it is today. I've been lucky. As a young person, I was completely convinced that media technology would become a new global art form. Even when I was young and starting out, before this current media explosion, I had a strong feeling that I would be doing this for the rest of my life.

C: Out of numerous exhibitions you’ve had, which one is the most memorable for you?

B: Well… I have so many favorites… Perhaps my first major solo exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1979 when I was 28. That was a big step.

C: How about the opera “Tristan and Isolde” in Paris in the spring of 2005?

B: That was also very special. It was an exciting project of collaboration with Esa Pekka Salonen, conductor of the LA Philharmonic, theater director Peter Sellars and Richard Wagner's incredible music. I made 4 hours of video projections for it. This project will come back to Los Angeles at "Disney Hall" in April next year, and then move to Lincoln center in New York in May.

C: How did your 1-year-and-a-half-long stay in Japan affect your work?

B: Well, I became a "gaijin," a foreigner, when I arrived in Japan, but most importantly I learned that despite differences of race, culture, and language, we are all the same inside. It was also a big revelation for me to find out that advanced technologies and ancient traditions coexist in Japanese culture and they continue to the present.

C: Why did you pick the title “Hatsuyume” for the title of your exhibition in Japan?

B: Well actually Kira came up with that. It is the title of an important videotape piece called "Hatsu-Yume," which we made while we were in Japan. But I didn't want people to focus on this "Hatsu-Yume" piece too much. As the Japanese title implies, we wanted the whole exhibition to be more of an idea of "First Dream."

C: Messages to your fans in Japan, please !

B: Please keep looking, keep seeing, keep feeling, and keep growing. Don't see obstacles. Only see openings!

Bill Viola
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