Bill Viola

Bill Viola is a visual artist who works primarily in the medium of video art. He attended the College of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University, from which he also received an honorary Doctorate degree of Fine Arts. Since 1970 he has created video art, architectural video installations, sound environments, electronic music performances, and pieces for television. Works include Hatsu Yume (First Dream), The Passing, and installations Room for St. John of the Cross, The Messenger, and The Quintet of the Astonished, recently shown at the National Gallery, London, in the exhibition Encounters, New Art from Old. In 1997 a 25-year survey exhibition of his work opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Organized by The Whitney Museum of American Art, it was shown at six institutions in the United States and Europe.

Selected Objects

Folio from a Ragamala Series:
Madhu Madhavi Ragini

India, Madhya Pradesh, Malwa region
about 1660-1680
Opaque watercolor and ink on paper
9 x 6 5/8 in. (22.9 x 16.8 cm); 1979.57

Hurry! Warm electricity flowing from the loins up into the stomach and rising along the spinal cord to the brain, clouding vision and sight with only one purpose-to be one with the lover. Running, running through the perfumed night air bristling with energy from a rising storm. Arriving close, now at the bedroom's threshold, breathing heavy with heat and desire-his smell and presence fill the air. Mad with passion, heart pounding, hand enters the sacred chamber, inches away from the touch of his bare skin. CRACK! A massive thunderclap resounds as nature herself can no longer hold back. Sexual heat and love energy are discharged from heaven in the electric fire of a jagged lightening bolt leaping from the turbulent sky, startling two white egrets who take flight. The orderly parallel lines of raindrops belie the fact that even nature herself is unstable in this moment of great anticipation. Time and Space collapse; Creation and Destruction merge; Birth and Death embrace. Fear, Shock, Surprise, Joy, Excitement, Anticipation, Guilt, Sorrow, Passion, Love fuse into one awakened instant, revealing the singular root of all human emotions and their place within the larger moods and seasons of Nature.

Ragmala painting is the visual component of an ancient comprehensive artistic system in Indian culture that encompasses images, language (poetry and literature), music (ragas), human emotion (rasas), and the cycles of nature. All are individual manifestations, written in their own local language (sight, sound, speech, etc.), of a deeper, underlying spiritual reality where all creative expressions share the same fundamental form.



A. Sudhana

B. Sudhana Visits
a Teacher

C. Sudhana Visits
a Teacher

D. Sudhana

Four leaves from a Gandavyuha Manuscript
Thakuri period, late 11th-early 12th century
Ink and opaque watercolor on palm leaf
Each 2 x 21 1/2 in. (5.1 x 54.6 cm); 1979.54.1-4

Hungry, empty, dissatisfied, incomplete. Sensing the absence of something essential. Knowing what we lack; feeling what we do not know. These are the precious jewels of our experience as human beings, for they lead directly to the path of knowledge and perfection.

If you engage in travel you will arrive.
-Ibn Arabi (1165-1240)

When the need to know becomes stronger than the need to be, when our immediate surroundings cannot fulfill our desire to see beneath the world of appearances, when the comforts of home become oppressive and counter-productive, we have no choice but to engage in travel. The four pages of the book on display here describe such a journey. It tells the story of a young man named Sudhana who is compelled by the very source of Wisdom (personified by Manjushri) to set out on a path that takes him through a series of encounters with various teachers and spiritual guides, eventually leading to enlightenment. It has functioned as a source of inspiration and motivation for Buddhists and spiritual seekers for the past two millennia.

In the end, none of his teachers have the ultimate answer for him, forcing Sudhana to continually move on and reminding us that incomplete efforts and even failures are priceless elements in an accumulated whole, and that living with a sound question is more important than possessing a temporary answer. The path is always more valuable than the destination.

  Zen'en (active first half 13th century)
Bodhisattva Kshitigarbha
(Jizo Bosatu)

Kamakura period, 1223-1226
Cypress wood with cut gold leaf and traces of pigment; Staff with metal attachments
H. 22 3/4 in. (57.8 cm); 1979.202a-e

The wide eyes of young children and the weary eyes of travelers reveal the vulnerability of the human soul. In an unfamiliar land, in a state of constant change and transition, they long to make their way to a place of security and stability. The presence of Jizo Bosatsu, Bodhisattva of the Earth Womb, watches over us at the crossroads. The protector of travelers and small children, he is the savior who will guide the faithful during the period when the true teachings are in decay.

Midway on this life's journey, I found myself in a dark wood, the right road lost.
-Dante, Inferno

Holding wisdom in the palm of his hand in the form of a jewel that grants all wishes (knowledge makes all things possible), Jizo is there to look after us when we are most vulnerable. The rings on his staff make a sound as he moves along the path, alerting small creatures to scurry out of the way so they won't be harmed.

In this contemporary technological world, we have all become travelers. We struggle with teachings that have slipped into disarray, searching for guideposts that are no longer there, markers that have faded from disuse, signs that no longer fulfill their function. We desperately, secretly, or even unconsciously, long for the image of calm repose, wisdom, and internal peace, but today Jizo's quiet presence has to compete with the din of many voices on the road, and often remains unheard.

  Scenes of the Buddha's Life
11th-12th century
Pyrophyllite with gilding
H. 7 3/4 in. (19.7 cm), W. 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm); 1979.90

The serene figure of Buddha in meditation-a still surface conceals the inner turmoil raging below. This is the point just prior to enlightenment, a moment of supreme tension when Shakyamuni, about to become a Buddha, must gather all his strength and knowledge to defeat Mara and the powerful forces of illusion. The knowledge and discoveries resulting from this great effort literally changed the world. The figures shown surrounding the Buddha represent scenes from his life and teachings-the first seven weeks after enlightenment (the inner figures), and the Eight Great Events of his life (the outer figures) including his death and transcendence, the paranirvana, shown above.

This small sculpture is an instrument of devotion and instruction, as well as a work of art, and it comes to us from a time when Asia and Europe stood on common ground. The depiction of a sacred figure in the commanding central position, with scenes from life and deeds presented around as panels in a cinematic narrative sequence, is familiar to anyone who has seen medieval depictions of the Christian saints. By choosing stories of such stature, artists have put their talents to use in the name of something much higher than mere illustration or self-expression. That this work is physically beautiful and finely crafted is evident to the eye and does not require further elaboration or commentary. Virtuosic display of skill and technique, art for art's sake, is out of place here. Works made for God must be the best that the maker can do. Purity of mind and purpose in the artist, rather than theory or technique, are the primary criteria for success in the making of the artwork. In this context, the images that artists create are ultimately designed not for mere aesthetic pleasure or intellectual engagement, but to transform the life and being of the viewer.

  Pavilion in a Beautiful Field (Shuyado)
Muromachi period, 15th century
Hanging scroll; ink and slight color on paper
28 1/4 x 11 3/4 in. (71.8 x 29.8 cm); 1979.210

Words float in the sky, announcing that this is a landscape of the mind, not the eye. A small hut in the mountains, an image of freedom-the desire to get away from it all, to take leave of the world of the nine-to-five job, the jostling for success and seats on the train, the incessant chatter of voices with opinions and something to sell. "I think I'll just go live on a mountain top" is the common refrain, but the arrangements prove to be too much, so we settle for an image.

Break the front door if you want to enter your home.
-Zen Master Dogen (13th century)

Many others have been there before, from St. Jerome and the desert fathers of early Christianity in Syria and the Nile valley in the fourth century, to Ryokan, the Zen recluse poet in Japan in the eighteenth century, the embodiment of the solitary retreat for the Japanese people. However, the image is not always pretty. St. Jerome is often depicted pounding his chest with a large rock, wailing in pain for enlightenment. Ryokan, less dramatic, constantly talks of the severity of the life of renunciation: the hunger, the cold, the deep loneliness. "My sleeve is wet with tears," he often writes, concluding a poem in the place where words fail. Hermits often long for the comforts and activity of the city.

The inscriptions on this picture scroll bear the signatures of two head abbots of Tofukuji Zen temple in the capital city Kyoto, indicating that it was hung in the institutional setting in a large, busy urban temple. It was there to provide a glimpse of the distant mountain retreat for someone who, like us, can find himself preoccupied with activities that are at odds with the stillness and silence of the contemplative life.