Bill Viola (born January 25, 1951) is today known for his work in video art. His exhibition profile, which includes the Guggenheim Berlin, Guggenheim New York, Getty Los Angeles, California, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York marks him as a major artist, at least by standards of public fame and repute. His work has also received extensive critical praise from both within the video art community and in the culture at large, which is unusual for an artist whose work often challenges the narrative conventions of the television screen.
Viola grew up in Queens and Westbury, New York. He attended P.S. 20, where he was Captain of the TV Squad, and went on to Syracuse University, where he studied in the Synapse experimental program, which evolved into HillTV. His first job on graduation was as a video technician at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse.
His early work established his fascination with issues that continue to inform his work today. In particular, Viola's obession with capturing the essence of emotion through recording of its extreme display began at least as early as his 1976 work, "The Space Between the Teeth", a video of himself screaming, and continues to this day with such works as the 45-second "Silent Mountain" (2001), which shows two actors in states of anguish.
If Viola's depictions of emotional states with no objective correlative -- emotional states for which the viewer has no external object or event to understand them by -- are one striking feature of many of his works, another, which has come to the forefront, is his reference to medieval and classical depictions of emotion. Most immediately, his subdued "Catherine's Room" 2001, has many scene by scene parallels with Andrea di Bartolo's 1393 "St. Catherine of Siena Praying".
While many video artists have been quick to adopt new technologies to their medium, Viola relies little, if at all, on computer editing and modification of his video. Perhaps the most technically challenging part of his work -- and that which has benefitted most from the advances since his earliest pieces -- is his use of extreme slow motion. "The Quintet Series" 2000 is one such piece (actually a set of four separate videos), that shows the unfolding expressions of the five actors in such slow motion that the expressions become almost unrecognizable. The series is a challenging one for the viewer, because the concentration required to follow the facial expressions over time must last for minutes or more. In general, the distortion of time, along with the lack of sound or voice over, form the most immediately ""new"" aspects of Viola's work for the first-time viewer.
One remarkable piece by Viola is his "Observance" 2002, which may be taken partly as a response to the September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks. "Observance" places the camera at eye level facing the head of a line of people of a wide variety of ages. As "Observance" unfolds, the line slowly advances, with each person pausing at the front of the line in a state of intense -- though quiet -- grief, before ceding their place to the next person in line.
Viola's work has received many critical accolades. Marjorie Perloff, best known for her poetry criticism and her promotion of avant-garde writers and styles, singles him out for praise. Perloff, who has written at length about the necessity of poetic works responding to and taking advantage of contemporary computer technologies, has written of Viola as an example of how new technology -- in his case, the video camera -- can create entirely new aesthetic criteria and possibilities that did not exist in previous incarnations of the genre -- in this case, theater. Other critics relevant to an understanding of Viola's work include Elaine Scarry's study "The Body in Pain". There, one of Scarry's major claims that the experience of physical pain defies direct representation in language and art; whether Viola's representations of pain in video confirm or contradict this thesis is a question open to debate.