Case Study of the Life of Bill Viola

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Bill Viola is living legend of media and technology especially in video production. Viola born on January 25, 1951 in Queens, New York, United States of America. Viola spent his early years of life in his home town Queens and later on shifted to Westbury, New York. Viola had curious nature that always triggered him to go ahead to fear. Once he was on a hilly area trip with his family, where he almost drowned in lake but he mentions the incident as one of the most enchanting experiences of his life. Viola earned university degree from Syracuse University, Syracuse New York in 1973 in fine art and started his professional career as a video technician at Everson Museum of Arts in Syracuse, New York. Later on two years he worked as technical director in Art/Tapes/22. And in 1976 and 1977 he traveled across the world to record cultural arts performances. In 1977 Viola was invited by WNET 13 channel Television laboratory New York to work as an artist in residence where he directed a notable series of work and they were on aired. 1977 proved to be lucky for Viola in terms of personal life, he was invited to La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia by their cultural arts director, Kira Parov as in the very next year Ms. Parov became Mrs. Viola. In 1979 Viola along with his spouse Parov, traveled to Sahara desert, Tunisia to record mirages. In 1980 Viola achieved a cultural fellowship between US and Japan for one and half year at Japan. In Japan, Parov and Viola acquired knowledge in Zen Buddhism and Viola became the first artist in residence at Sony Corporation’s Atsugi research laboratories. At the end of 1981 Parov and Viola came back to USA but this time in California where Viola joined California Institute of Arts as an instructor and taught Advanced Video Technology. Viola also continued his art work with a unique theme with Parov. They created art work based on human body medical images retrieved from a local hospital, animal consciousness in a zoo at San Diego and fire walking rituals of Hindu community at Fiji. Parov had great interest and experience in photography. In 1987 both travel to south west of USA and captured rock sites and recorded videos of desert landscapes.

Viola’s art work is fascinating, the way he relates everything behind the camera to exclusive spiritual ideas. His videos show his great and unique love for nature. In 2005 he went to Dharamshala, India with his sons to record a prayer with Dalai Lama. Viola has great passion for music too. From 1973 to 1980, seven years he had worked, performed and learned with a composer David Tudor, being attached to a music group “Rainforest”. Viola’s arts work got global recognition and appraisal back in 1970’s. Numerous exhibitions of arts in all over the world exhibited Viola’s creative arts work. For instance in 1987 at Museum of Modern Art, New York “Installations and Videotapes”. In 1995, Viola represented USA exhibiting one his famous piece of art work “Buried Secrets” at the 46th Venice Biennale. In 1997, Whitney Museum of American Arts paid a tribute to Viola’s art work by presenting Viola’s 25 years of art work that had around 35 installations and video tapes. Viola has a unique personality and thinking. In an interview he revealed that he don’t like to live in crowded places, he prefers to live in the corner side of city therefore he’s living from last 25 years in a corner of long beach, California with his spouse and two sons. His studio is nearby to his house and he has rented another house, where he has maintained a resource library. In that house, he goes and stays to think and plan ideas, without any communication source not even phone. According to Bill Viola, he thinks more creatively when he his near to nature and away from people and daily routine tensions. He only goes to his studio after formulating an idea to work else he doesn’t go. He takes things and events positively, like he has no fear that life will end. In fact the main theme behind most of his work, we all living in this world for a short duration and we have to return into eternal life, that’s stability. His art works began to exhibit when he was at school at the age of, usually displayed on wall. During his academic life, his paintings were always fixed on walls and they are still there. This fact convinces that he has in born talent of becoming an artist, much like a passion that later on became his profession (Viola, 1990). His ideas are deeply rooted in spiritualism, Mysticism, shamanism, Buddhism. Taoism, Sufism, and philosophical thoughts (Ross, Sellars, & Hyde, 1997). Viola has received numerous awards for his outstanding contributions to media and video technology. In 1984 he received a national award: Polaroid Video Art Award for his exceptional achievement. Again in 1987, he received Maya Deren Award from American Film Institute, USA. In 1989, his work was honored with John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award, USA. In 1993, he was awarded Skowhegan Medal for his contributions’ in Video Installation, USA. Viola has immense contribution to art in terms of ancient culture, his services were acknowledged and awarded in 2003 by American Federal of Arts that presented him Cultural leadership Award. Viola not only received prestige and awards from his home country but across worldwide. In 2006, he received NORD/LB Art prize in Bremen, Germany. In 2009, he was honored by an award from Cambridge MA. In 2009 he won International Prize at Barcelona, Spain. In 2011 Viola’s university, Syracuse University felt great pride and honor in his student contributions to field of arts and awarded him Arent Award for Distinguished Alumni. Recently in 2013 he received two awards, one from Anderson Ranch, Snowmass Village, CO the “National Artist Award” and the other from Aurora Picture Show, Houston, TX the “Aurora Award”. Along with a long list of awards, Viola has also received nine (9) honorary doctoral degrees in Fine Arts from various universities and institutes worldwide.


In media technology numerous artist are working on video technology and installations, what makes Viola’s art unique is use of slow motion with intensive computer based editing. He has contributed a lot in this field, in this paper we will discuss some of his works.

In 2007 Viola represented US in 52nd Venice Biennale where he presented his video installation, “ocean without shore”. It’s one the major and greatly influential video installations by Viola. The concept behind “Ocean Without Shore” is about the transition between life and death with using water. A viewer faces three large video monitors which are placed in a dark room. About twenty four people starting appearing from an invisible water wall. Flow of water is dynamic. Every person walks alone and start approaching the viewer. Those twenty four people are all same, hazy and skin tone is grey. As the come closer to the viewer, at a certain distance that is a threshold between them and viewer, they touch the unseen threshold. When they touch it, it clearly visible as a powerful heat lightening. Afterwards they turn back and move again to the invisible water wall. Whole video installation last for one and half hour. Every person appearing from the invisible water wall is silent, calm, and static. They are communicating with deep emotions. Their emotions can be written into thousands of words. Each of the person returns, as if death is knocking at his door. They are in a strange peaceful state as arrival of death is welcomed by them. Ocean Without shore is a deep emotional illustration of human. It depicts the events which lie at conjunction point of death and life. Bill Viola says, “The video sequence documents a succession of individuals slowly approaching out of darkness and moving into the light in order to pass into the physical world. Once incarnate, however, all beings realize that their presence is finite and so they must eventually turn away from material existence to return from where they came. The cycle repeats without end.” Idea of Ocean Without Shore was taken from the poetry of Birago Diop. Birago was inspired from a Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi who said “The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.” This work shows Viola is influenced by mysticism and Sufism. Viola’s work allows viewer to perceive all forms of life, in a ways he persuades the viewer to see his own reflection in the basic ideas of hope, desire, love, death, regeneration and above all stability (Robson, 2011).

Another great piece of art was later on presented by Viola that shares concept and theme with Ocean without shores. Bodies of light is a discrete series of transfigurations that focus on the time when a person or object follows the principle of transformation due to internal forces of high conscious not external. Viola shows the transformation of self is usually called by an inner realization. A person gets clear idea of his soul, his filthy ,unfiltered set of emotions and then he overcomes all such emotions and gets transformed into a new being, an ideal being. In this piece of art Viola used black and white images of ghostly bodies, that appear slowly from darkness, and pass through a certain threshold of water and enter enlighten colorful world. That new arrival of self-encounters with diverse set of human emotions from joy to fury, and all are occupied with some desires, and finally these ghostly bodies disappear in darkness from where the appeared. In this installation Viola used images shots from an old camera along with shots with a High definition camera (Viola, Bodies of Light). In this artistic video Viola conveys a message of life to his viewer that their comes a point in life, when a person changes itself for his inner peace and satisfaction. Running with this world may earn money and luxury to a person but the cost is an individual’s internal peace. Internal forces become stronger to external forces and thus a man’s life become serene.


Bill Viola is a big name in the video technology and installations, and has achieved many awards and honors due to his contributions. One cannot say viola came into this field by chance or by choice. He is an inborn artist. According to him life without art is not a life. Despite great amount of fame and recognition, Viola’s life is simple and he looks for simplicity in every aspect of life. The main idea of Bill Viola’s work is about basic human life, needs and processes. The way he tries to relate the existence of man with death is remarkable. He shows both sides of perspectives in his work. Illustrating the phenomenon of death so much is usually considered as pessimism. It may devoid the viewer’s interest from life and he may think that life will end so why he has to make efforts for survival. But Viola on the same time tries to convince the viewer that he cannot escape from universal realities. A dead being is actually undead. He persuades the viewers to think at high level of consciousness. This approach provokes the viewer to understand the importance of basic human needs that are love, hope, grief and a desire to live. Viola uses water and light along with high dimensional camera’s to depict his themes. His trademark is use of slow motion, bodies (characters) appear and disappear in monitors of video screen very slowly and smoothly. His videos enhances the amount of serenity in the viewer. Viola uses latest technology and works on old age concept and ideas particularly Sufism and Mysticism. Viola’s piece of work are calm, serene and smooth that adds tranquility in viewer. Viola’s work is more about to ponder than to praise the high dimension camera. His themes are universal and influence all kind of people. One cannot claim that he makes art pieces and video installations for a particular class of people. Viola has deep interest in ancient saints and their history.


Robson, J. (2011, November 19). Bill Viola: Ocean Without a Shore. Retrieved from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts:

Ross, D. A., Sellars, P., & Hyde, L. (1997). Bill Viola. New York : Whitney Museum of American Art.

Viola, B. (1990, June 30). Contemporay Arts. (M. Nash, Interviewer)

Viola, B. (n.d.). Bodies of Light. Bodies of Light. James Cohan Gallery, New York.