Contemporary Art

Bill Viola: Video Art And Renaissance Classics

Zuzanna Stańska 24 June 2017 min Read

Bill Viola is known as an inventor of video art and is internationally recognized as one of today’s leading artists. He has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art, and in so doing has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. For 40 years he has created videotapes, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, flat panel video pieces, and works for television broadcast.

His works focus on universal human experiences—birth, death, the unfolding of consciousness—and have roots in both Eastern and Western art as well as spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism.

Installation view of Bill Viola’s exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.
Installation view of Bill Viola’s exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.

From 10 March to 23 July 2017 the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi will be presenting the exhibition: Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance. Full of monumental installations showing humanity in full augmentation: people, bodies and faces are the leading players in his work with its poetic and strongly symbolic style in which man interacts with the forces and energies of nature such as water and fire, light and dark, the cycle of life and the cycle of rebirth.

Installation view of Bill Viola’s exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.
Installation view of Bill Viola’s exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi.

In the center of the exhibition is Viola’s interaction with the classics: the dialogue between Viola’s work and the masterpieces of the great masters of the past, from which he has drawn his inspiration. Viola in his early twenties spent 18 months working in the city and since then the Renaissance has been playing a huge role in his works. The setting of Palazzo Strozzi fills Viola’s videos with masterpieces of Lucas Cranach, Masolino, Pontormo and Paolo Uccello.

Viola’s works seen on YouTube are nothing comparing to experiencing, or rather watching them “live” in the scenography of the exhibition. So here you can watch an exhibition trailer:

Viola’s inspirations are very clear. Like in the work entitled Emergence (2002) which revisit themes of death and rebirth – in this case, a deathly Christ-like figure emerging from a well flanked by two mourning women.

Bill Viola, Emergence, 2002
Bill Viola, Emergence (2002). Performers: Weba Garretson, John Hay, Sarah Steben. Photo ©Long Beach, CA, Bill Viola Studio
Bill Viola, Emergence (2002). Performers: Weba Garretson, John Hay, Sarah Steben. Photo ©Long Beach, CA, Bill Viola Studio
The exhibition setting

In The Deluge (1995) a building and surrounding population succumb to a vast flood of water. In the 36-foot-long The Path, in which a procession of some 150 extras walk through a forest clearing. These are shown alongside works from the 15th and 16th centuries that the artist has cited as explicit points of reference.

Bill Viola, The Path, copyrights: Bill Viola
Bill Viola, The Path, copyrights: Bill Viola

But it was not just the artistic sights in Florence that helped to shape Viola’s work. The artist also spent time going around cathedrals and churches recording ambient sound. One audio work informed by these early explorations is Presence, originally created for the US pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1995. This six-channel sound installation, tailored to fit each space in which it is exhibited, features whispered voices telling secrets on the edge of hearing, the rhythm of steady breathing and the deep rumble of a human heartbeat.

Find out more:

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