Can a book be an artist’s self-portrait? Or a portrait? How much of an overlap is there between portrait, self-portrait and autobiography? These are questions that may come to mind while reading the catalogue (published by Giunti, Florence 2017) for the exhibition Bill Viola – Rinascimento elettronico, curated by Arturo Galansino and Kira Perov and currently running at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. This is a highly acclaimed show, extremely intense and detailed in its selection of works and characterised by its meticulous organisation by the artist himself and his wife Kira Perov, who has spent years assisting Bill with his work.
The exhibition’s underlying theme is the reference made by Viola’s work to art history as a source of iconographic, compositional and formal inspiration, interpreted with a deep sense of artistic creation as spiritual experience. In profound accord, moreover, with the exploration and use of complex technical devices geared to the construction of a specific language. This kind of research is seen both in the pictorial effects of many of Viola’s works and in his evocation of ancient polyptychs in the format of numerous installations, and has become a constant, starting with his celebrated work The Greeting (1995): the encounter between three women inspired by La Visitazione by Jacopo Pontormo (1528-29). Since then, most of Viola’s works follow the conceptual model of a fascinating electronic modulation of images structured like paintings, sharing an evocative perception of a slow-motion temporality, dense with emotional urgency.
This idea, which underlies the exhibition, is intensified by the juxtaposition of Viola’s video installations with the Renaissance paintings that provided their inspiration. The Greeting is next to Pontormo’s painting, Emergence next to Cristo in pietà by Masolino da Panicale, Acceptance and Observance placed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo alongside Donatello’s Maria Maddalena and Michelangelo’s Pietà Bandini, The Deluge next to Paolo Uccello in the verdant cloister of Santa Maria Novella. From Palazzo Strozzi, the exhibition expands to other parts of the city and the region, as far as Empoli and Arezzo.
Between electronic art and the Florentine Renaissance, then, a “dialogue” is established, as defined by Galansino in the introduction to the catalogue; a dialogue that began with Bill Viola’s stay in Florence in 1974 as a technician at Maria Gloria Bicocchi’s art/ tapes/ 22 centre (the subject of an article by Alice Hutchison, Tecnologia e rivelazione. Bill Viola a Firenze), when the artist received a kind of imprinting from his immersion in a city with such an extraordinary wealth of art and his discovery that art does not reside in museums but rather forms part of a creative landscape that concerns time and space, emotions and history.
This perspective, which continually evokes a certain history and presence and underlines the intersection between different cultural identities – the Renaissance and the contemporary, painting and digital technology, but also between Florence and the artist’s studio in California – leads the observer to take a critical view, prompted not only by admiration for spectacular installations but also – to some extent at least – by an understanding of the artist’s intentions and sources of inspiration.
The catalogue reflects the structure of the exhibition: a few extremely meaningful articles, and a series of notes in which Bill describes his ideas. The sphere of action of his art is precisely defined, without the need to bring in a definition of video art or electronic art; a form which is now established but still in search of its own critical language, and which, in this exhibition in Palazzo Strozzi, is nevertheless perfectly assimilated into the world of art thanks to the legitimisation provided by the presence of masterpieces. At the centre of the discourse is a lengthy and fascinating interview which delves deep into the artist’s approach (John G. Hanhardt intervista Bill Viola): it includes discussion of his personal biography, of awareness and self-knowledge, because – as Viola states – “the underlying idea of the medium is the creation of an artificial system which reflects literally, technologically and symbolically the scope of life. In doing so, it incorporates various aspects of the world which lie outside the visible sphere”. In this vein, and in a variety of ways, the interview discusses Viola’s relationship with the experience of art as constant discovery of himself and the world: it addresses topics to do with time, feelings, visual representation and emotional perception, sound, photography, slowness, the transition from unconscious to conscious; the role of the medium (“the medium amplifies knowledge”) and the meaning of the digital revolution and its overwhelming effects.
Another important contribution is Il processo creativo – Rendere visibile l’invisibile by Kira Perov, which gives a detailed account of the making of Viola’s works: a topic which naturally starts with the knowledge that creating a work of art is always a complex mental, material and technical process, and that an understanding of this is an essential tool for the interpretation and enjoyment of the work itself.
In the early 70s – Kira Perov writes – Bill Viola’s primary interest “was the study of human perception, which soon gave rise to a research aimed at a comprehension of the human consciousness, or simply of being”. The stages of this research resolve themselves in a series of internal and intellectual experiences, closely linked to the tools and procedures used, and sometimes invented for their execution: from single-channel video to installations, recordings to increasingly complex montages, the gathering of images and sounds to the design of genuine film sets, with actors, set designers, technicians and light engineers and using ever-more sophisticated and specialised equipment, from plasma screens and LCD monitors to the high definition of the digital world.
“The advent of each new device inspired new ideas for his work”, continues Kira Perov. “Bill was always pushing the boundaries of the tools at his disposal… our archive contains every format of video, including 12.7 mm open reels in black and white, U-matic, Hi8, Beta SP, Laser Discs, DVDs, high-definition mediums and the most recent digital hard discs. The works on display at Palazzo Strozzi constitute an exceptional representation of the various changes that have occurred in video technology and mediums over the past forty years. Technology for the creation of images has developed faster than any other, and Bill has spent his life using these technologies and inventing new ones in order to give form to his extraordinary vision”.
The catalogue is enriched by photographs which document situations and solutions: Viola in the editing suite and in the Tunisian desert, his equipment on a donkey-cart, or among the scenery used for studio shoots, with actors and technicians, rehearsing, checking and giving instructions, always actively engaged. Images of an artist’s life. Missing are the original sketches of Viola’s projects, which appeared in another major exhibition of his, Bill Viola. Visioni Interiori held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome in 2008-09 and also curated by Kira Perov.
«Bill Viola.Electronic Renaissance», Giunti Editore, Florence 2017
catalogue of the show, curated by Arturo Galansino and Kira Perov, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 10.03- 23.04.2017
images: (cover 1) Bill Viola, «The Deluge (Going Forth By Day)», Panel 3 of 5 panels from Going Forth By Day (2002). Video/Sound installation. High-Definition color video projected onto wall in dark room; stereo sound and subwoofer 370 x 488 cm. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio (2) Bill Viola, «The Greeting», 1995, 10’22″. Video/Sound Installation. Color video projection on large vertical screen mounted on wall in darkened space; amplified stereo sound. Performers: Angela Black, Suzanne Peters, Bonnie Snyder 280 x 240 cm. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio (3) Bill Viola, «Eclipse. The Moon Setting Through an Open Window (Winter Solstice 1974)», 20’3’’. Videotape, black-and-white, mono sound. Produced in association with Art/Tapes/22, Florence, Italy. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio(4) Bill Viola, «The Crossing», 1996, 10’57’’. Video/Sound installation. Two channels of color video projections from opposite sides of a large dark gallery onto two large back-to-back screens suspended from ceiling and mounted to floor; four channels of amplified stereo sound, four speakers. Performer: Phil Esposito 401 x 286 cm. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio (5) «Bill Viola.Rinascimento Elettronico», Giunti Editore, Florence 2017, cover