Bill Viola was one of the first artists to use video art and sound technologies in his work, starting in the early ʼ70s.
In the early days I was trying to figure out what this medium was and what it was capable of doing. So I was really trying to set up these very, almost like scientific, experiments to see exactly what would happen if I did such and such. A lot of it dealt with, of course, self reflection because this medium is more incredible and intense than even Narcissus. It has a way of reflecting ourselves to the world. That’s what’s going on right now when you sit at your computer screens and you project yourself out into the world, whether it’s through Twitter or Facebook or whatever, that you’re actually making vestiges of the self and you’re sending it out into the world.
The artist has traveled extensively, and spent extended periods of time in Florence, Italy, a center of Renaissance art, and later in Japan, with his wife and collaborator, Kira Perov. He reflects on his first impressions of Japanese culture and the impact of his travels on him and his work.
When Kira and I were in Japan where I was on a cultural exchange program in 1980/81—and that was an extraordinary spirit force, just to be in another culture, especially one as rich as Japan. Because the thing I really love about Japan is, Japan never experienced the Renaissance. They went directly from the Middle Ages right into the modern world, when Commodore Perry came with its gunships and in the great American way so rudely opened up Japan to foreign goods and things and connected it with the rest of the world. But for 250 years, they had been completely isolated and they were living in a medieval world. There were guys walking around with Samurai swords in the cities and stuff. So it was really a very special thing when you take out one of the major components of certainly Western culture, this kind of idea of progress and things, and you just suddenly go from the Middle Ages right to the modern world. So that really attracted us, I think, and taught me a lot about the nature of time and the nature of experience.
So I would walk around in the middle of Tokyo, one of the most contemporary places on the planet–I mean the architecture, everything is extraordinary–and right under the surface you just get the feeling that there is something else, there’s another deep, deep layer there. And that really fascinated me…it really fascinated me.