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Interviews / January 29, 2013

Bill Viola on Going Into Tristan und Isolde’s Deeps

Over the past 40 years, American artist Bill Viola has brought video art from the margins into the mainstream. And he’s still pushing the form into new realms: Tonight, the Canadian Opera Company opens a production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde for which Viola has created a massive video component. (It’s only the second full staging of the production, which opened at the Paris Opera in 2005.) This Toronto interview with Bill Viola and Kira Perov—his wife and studio director—touches on kindergarten art class, Nine Inch Nails concerts, and Wagner’s interest in Buddhism, among other topics.

Leah Sandals: Usually your work is produced to be shown on its own in a gallery or museum. For this opera, though, your work was just one component of a broader collaboration. How did you deal with that circumstance?

BV: I must say, when I started, I was in shock, because I was not an opera fan. Kira had known opera really well, though, so she helped enlighten me about that.

I’d always been interested in music, however. In the 1970s, I’d worked with David Tudor, who was the pianist for John Cage for many years. And, of course, the art medium I work in—video— is actually an amalgam of music or sound with visuals.

KP: I think, in a way, that Tristan ended up working the way David Tudor and John Cage worked with Merce Cunningham. Everyone worked in separate rooms and then it all came together.

For the original 2005 edition, conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen offered the interpretation of the music; then we did the video; and then director Peter Sellars, who we have known since the 1980s, was able to see it and try to figure out how to respond to it on the stage.

LS: How do the visual motifs in your opera video compare to what your fans are used to seeing from you in the gallery?

BV: I think it’s kind of a continuum.

KP: The interesting thing is that a lot of the ideas and images that ended up in Tristan were floating around for Bill anyway. Later on, we pulled some of the Tristan video out and created other soundtracks for it. That video became a series of installation pieces—I think there were about 20 gallery or installation pieces that came out of Tristan.

BV: Love/Death and Tristan’s Ascension and Fire Woman were from there, for instance.

KP: Some of the opera video was definitely made for the Tristan feel and look—there are parts to it that have a 19th-century German Romantic opera feel to it. But then there are others that just completely stand alone on their own.

Overall, the video is not a literal translation of anything. It’s not like the people in the video are imitating the score or the libretto. It’s an unconscious version of what is going on—a subtext, in a way.

LS: Spirituality is a term that often comes up around your work. How do you relate to that idea?

BV: When I was young, my parents would say I had my head in the clouds a lot. I was always kind of “not there”—but really, I was looking at something else.

I mean, I knew I was looking at trees and boats and cars and various other sorts of things. But for me, in my own inner world, I was really going deep somewhere. I had no idea of the nature of it; that had to come later when I finally understood it on my own terms.

It’s been a hard thing to get those inner experiences out, of course.

I was always the class artist, ever since I was a kid. It started in the first day of kindergarten when I did a picture of a tornado for Mrs. Fallon in Flushing, Queens, New York. She held it up in front of the class and she said “Now, who did this?” And I dove under the table! Ha!

Of course, after that, I got a little bit better and a little bit better, and… here I am.

LS: Peter Sellars has said that your work and Wagner’s are similar in that they both slow time down. To me, one similarity is that you both deal with the grand themes in grand ways—there is no sense of irony or self-effacement. What similarities do you see?

BV: Well, there is that spiritual interest.

Wagner was very interested in Buddhism through Schopenhauer and other sources. In Buddhism, heaven represents the spiritual essence, and earth represents the physical essence. Those things resonate constantly through Wagner.

And that was right up my alley, because I always felt that my work was not of this earth. I mean, it was connected, but it wasn’t connected as much with the physical part of it as much as the eternal, deeply spiritual part of it.

Wagner was also very interested in the union of opposites. I do think he’s taking it from other, deeper sources, such as Buddhism, but you have light and dark, day and night, fire and water, male and female, life and death. These are all dualities, all interacting in a really interesting way. It’s all about the transformation of human beings.

LS: It’s been several years since this production of Tristan debuted. What has changed about it in that period of time, or what do you wish you could have changed?

KP: Well, the Tristan piece actually does change; it changes to suit the tempo of the conductor.

The video is constructed in such a way that there are always two playback units, and our wonderful team of operators, headed up by Alex McGuinness who works in our studio, takes cues from the stage manager according to how the piece is progressing with the singers and the conductors. So it’s a living thing, in a way.

That makes it different from some of the other performed projects we’ve done. We did one in 1994 with the Ensemble Modern from Frankfurt. They recorded Varese’s Déserts and sent us the recording. We made the video for that. Now, anyone else who wants to perform with the video has to wear a click track; they need to conduct the music to the video, which is quite the opposite from how it works in Tristan.

And when we worked in 2000 with Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor—talk about perfectionism! His entire concert program was on a time code—the drumming, the lights, everything. So that was really easy for us. We just had to fill in the time code.

LS: Bill, it’s clear when you speak—as you did at Art Basel Miami recently—that you have a great deal of optimism and wonder about the world we live in, as well as its people. Yet your artworks have a very dark quality. Why?

BV: Well, no one wants to see death. But you have to accept it as part of life and use your time as best you can. Life is a time-based thing that has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s the structure of it in a very fundamental way.

And that’s something artists have always dealt with—tragedy and love and compassion. All those great things that humanity has are real, but the experience also has to include anger, and it has to include fear, and it has to include death and destruction. It’s just in the fabric of stuff.

KP: But embedded in all of that is rebirth and the recycling. Once you set up a video installation, it always recycles and starts all over again.

LS: So you guys have done Wagner, and you’ve done major museums and biennales all over the world. What’s next?

BV: Sleep! Ha!

KP: We’re just making new work right now that we’re going to present in a gallery exhibition at Blain|Southern in London in June.

BV: We will also be doing something in France in the near future.

Also, it’s been a more of a recent thing for me, but I’ve really loved connecting with young people and students. I hope that happens more in the future too. It is so thrilling to meet young people who have just started out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via