American Video artist, known for his spectacular installations. Born in New York, he studied at Syracuse University, where he became especially interested in electronic music. He made his first video tape in 1972, Wild Horses, which contained alternating images of wild and tamed horses. In the early 1970s he exhibited alongside such pioneers of Video art as Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he travelled widely, including trips to Fiji and the Himalayas recording traditional music. During this period he became highly critical of the privileging of European art in conventional histories of the subject. Since 1978 he has worked in close collaboration with his wife, Kira Petrov.
Viola's work tends to engulf the spectator. He has been deeply involved with Buddhism but also affected by other spiritual traditions. Alongside the frequent references to Old Master paintings, this has made Viola in some way the ‘acceptable face’ of Video art in relatively conservative environments: his work has been seen in Durham Cathedral and in the National Gallery, London. (This spiritual emphasis has also been strongly criticized by some other Video artists such as Susan Hiller.) His installation Room for St John of the Cross (1983, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles) was dedicated to the Spanish poet and mystic (1542–91) who was imprisoned for nine months in a tiny room for his beliefs. It combines a kind of reconstruction of the room in which the saint's poems can be heard and a larger space outside, on one wall of which images of a mountain range are projected. In the background, a roaring sound is heard. For Viola, the mystic is a kind of outsider in religion, in some way analogous to the artist. The religious theme is again explicit in Emergence (2002, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), a literal re-enactment of the Resurrection. Nantes Triptych (1991) used the format of Renaissance religious painting by employing three-screen projection to represent the cycle of life. On either side there were images of birth and death (a real birth and an old woman on her deathbed). The central panel shows a figure engulfed in turbulent water.
M. L. Syring, Bill Viola: Unseen Images (1992)