Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bill Viola And The Way That You Think About Artists

The last three days were the kind of days that deserve a few extra words. I learned a great deal, although it was not what I expected to learn, and I hope that other Lawrence students learned a lot as well. I had the opportunity to meet and spend a good deal of time with two artists, Bill Viola and his wife Kira Perov. Bill Viola, as many people in the art world know, is an innovator in the medium of video art (words taken straight from my convocation intro. Hey, I can't always be original here). He is mentioned in countless art books that I have read throughout my academic career, and still exhibits around the world at the major museums and galleries (you know, the ones that define you as a major and significant artist). Here is a fashionable photo of the team from French Vogue(!) Magazine:

I was first made aware that Bill and Kira would be coming to Lawrence about year ago by my industrious art history professor, Elizabeth Carlson. A year ago I had the image of Bill as an artist-diva, one who wouldn't listen to the ideas of people around him, who would not make eye contact because of a superiority complex, who carried an iPhone at all times and worked on a strict schedule, constantly making phone calls back to his studio in LA or New York. I still predicted this up until the first time I heard Bill speak on Sunday.

Never have I ever, ever, ever been so wrong.

Bill Viola was kind of like that strange uncle that you don't exactly want to see at family get-togethers. He was quiet, and often spoke in riddles like a character out of a Tolkien novel. It seemed as though he could not quite organize his thoughts into one coherent sentence, and he often repeated his ideas (which I knew because I was in contact with him for three days in a row). He was focused on the themes of technology, Japanese death poems, samurais, and finding one's "inner self" through solitude. If you asked him any question, be it about his art or about his life, he seemed to somehow return to one of these topics.

If I would have met only Bill I would have wondered how the man did anything. Not just create art, but actually functioned on a daily basis. The answer to this dumbfounding question was found in his regal and composed wife, Kira. I had the special privilege of observing the pair behind the scenes before Bill went on stage to deliver his convocation address. Kira shuffled papers while Bill seemed confused as to what the papers were doing there. Kira attempted to direct him to certain talking points while Bill rummaged around in his backpack for his book of death poems. Kira even asked him if he had to use the loo (in her charming Australian) right before he went on.

I'm not sure if these are things that I am allowed to reveal about the inner workings of a collaborative relationship of incredibly famous artists. But these details are important to reveal because of the way that we think about artists, and the way that we think about collaboration. In general, I think collaboration leads to better work. For example: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Christo and Jeanne Claude, Julie and Johnnie (my favorite collaborators, of course). I myself have collaborated with Josh and his band Perennial to make an album cover for them. I don't think that all of these artist pairs collaborate in the same way or on the same level. I just know that they have made significant work with the other person at some point in their career. However, when I think of collaboration I never think that one person in the pair is literally incapable of being a human while the other person holds everything together.

Kira has taken on the enormous task of managing her husband's career, editing and producing his videos, hiring actors to appear in his work, and, as far as I can tell, tying the man's shoes and ironing his clothes.

I feel bad, I really do.

But I shouldn't. I'm not saying anything that you couldn't have gathered from spending 10 minutes with the two of them. Observing Bill and Kira was painful and awkward and yet fascinating at the same time. Over the course of three days I was constantly wondering: who am I supposed to be taking seriously as an artist here?

It's been a debate in the art world for a long, long time. Andy Warhol, for example, had an art "factory," and hired hundreds of skilled lithographers to create his art products for him, and Warhol is of course one of the most famous artists in the entire world.  Other artists do the same; Haruki Murakami (although admittedly he is well known for supporting the careers of his assistants), Kehinde Wihle...the list is longer than I can fit into one blog post.

Kira's well aware. There is nothing created today that is created alone, she said. We live in a world driven by social media and mass-production, meaning that art has to be produced in large amounts, and it then has to be seen on the internet. If an artist wants to be Bill Viola (that is, pictured in Vogue magazine, exhibiting at all the major places, etc., etc.), that artist has to have help.

So why do you never see the names of people who put all their hard work into a piece of art? You only see the one: Bill Viola. Andy Warhol. Matthew Barney (Barney in particular is absolutely kidding himself if he thinks he created anything alone). The difference is this: once you see the reality of what went into an art work, it doesn't seem as magical, or as "genius." It would seem more like a huge Blockbuster movie or a "Special Thanks To" section at the beginning of a novel. It would mean that the art didn't just materialize out of thin air to be exhibited at a museum. At my recent internship at Franconia Sculpture Park I have witnessed this phenomenon thousands of times. One of the main questions I am asked when conducting tours or engaging on any level with park visitors is: "Who's the guy that made all these sculptures?"

In some ways, I still want to believe in this idea of genius. I still want to see that one person's time and effort can be put into creating something so beautiful and powerful that it makes me cry on the spot. Maybe it's because I never get any help. Not sure. I still want to believe this even though I saw for myself that Bill Viola is a walking, circle-talking, idea with a wife who is the executor of these ideas.

Which really makes me wonder: If art is not capable of being produced at the expense of one person's hand anymore, does that mean that the real definition of artist is "idea maker"? Are artists in the twenty-first century only capable of conceptual art because the actual execution of their ideas is completely beyond their ability?


Does it mean that artists don't exist anymore?


Has it always been this way? Has there always been a "Kira Perov" hovering underneath the elbow of the artist as he floats around in his bubble of ideas?

I'm saying "he" simply because I'm speaking of the Bill-Kira dynamic. I know there is a whole layer of gender roles that I could dissect here, but I almost think it's too obvious. Or maybe I just want to ignore it. Somehow I don't think that Kira would actually appreciate it very much. She works damn hard, and she likes what she does. If, at the end of the day her name isn't up on the wall, maybe it just doesn't matter that much. She chose this as her role in Bill's life and in his career. To say that she resigned herself to it or that she was forced by ideological ideals to adopt this position would be damn offensive.

Not to mention the fact that I haven't even talked about Viola's work, really. At the end of the convocation he played his piece Three Women, and the audience held its breath as Viola's true voice, his idea, rang out across the chapel.

Excerpt from Three Women, 2008

This is a really bad bootleg, and it doesn't do the piece any justice, but at least you can get a sense of what we saw at the convo (which of course didn't really do the piece justice either). I know at least several people who were moved to tears by this recent work; a completely different reaction from the early experimental videos that were also screened at Lawrence this week. Seeing his old videos in comparison to his newer videos wasn't jarring at all like I thought it would be. It was not a juxtaposition of old work vs. new work but a view of a transformation and progression over time. His early work shows the beginning of his exploration of his medium. His new work shows his control of it as the technology continues to change and develop.

The most striking aspect of his early work was how prophetic he seemed to be about his ultimate message, even in its fledgling stages. His deep connection with nature and spirituality in relation to technology could be seen in the way that he holds his video camera tenderly to gaze upon a mountain, then shifts its unflinching lens to stare the desert, then pans over the busy streets of Japan, then turns its eye back to nature again, all with flawless and unexpected fluidity. We are in a trance that is so similar to the one we are in when we watch mindless television, and yet, we feel refreshed, like we just stepped out of the cool, green forests of Viola's world.

Watching these videos, along with the rest of my experience this week, has been truly eye-opening, and it is possible that I will never have one quite like it again. I was able to have lunch with two famous artists two days in a row, stand up in front of a chapel of people and spout my ideas about art and technology, view highly inaccessible (literally and figuratively) work from one of the most important contemporary artists of our time, and dissect the relationship between a pair of artists that have labelled themselves as collaborators. Unfortunately I did not gain insight from what I was supposed to gain insight from, which was the convocation address. Viola has managed to pack a punch with his words in documentaries, where he has been highly edited down to make it look like he is a good public speaker. He isn't. His speech was semi-charming, but it was also boring.

Like I said, I feel bad.

But I don't feel that bad, because in the end, no matter how it was made or who made it, no one can create work like Bill Viola. Who cares if he is bad at public speaking? He has built his career (with help, certainly) out of creating beautiful and life-affirming art with a medium that inspires awe within me and other people. He makes people cry. He makes people feel. He is a genius, in many ways.

Should his name be on a wall? Of course it should.

However, the next time I look at that wall, I will remember that the geniuses of our time are shattered fragments of what they used to be because of postmodernism's destruction of our ability to function as a solitary unit. Bill can't function without Kira. But maybe it isn't his fault. This is a conundrum about artists in a postmodern setting that should be remembered by those who viewed the convocation and wrote Viola off entirely. It is literally impossible to be an artist, and a promoter, and a manager at the same time, let alone a mouthpiece for your own work.

When Viola does speak, he speaks often about solitude, and perhaps this is why. Because he realizes that he will never, ever again have anything in his life that even resembles solitude if he wishes to keep his status as artist-genius. It's the artistic paradox of our time, I guess.

[Disclaimer: I view the dissection of the experience as purely educational and beneficial for myself and potential readers of this blog. I have nothing but respect and appreciation for Bill and Kira's work and their influence on the medium of video and I thank them immensely for devoting their time to Lawrence and for taking time away from production to visit us in the cold, midwestern "spring." Spending time with Bill and Kira was one of the biggest honors I have ever received since attending Lawrence University, and this experience is one of the many reminders I have of how lucky I am to attend this school.]

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