The wound is the place where the light enters you.

Bill, we are right in the middle of the last exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea. It was titled Bodies of Light. One room after the other, like a chain of little chapels in the apse of a gothic cathedral. A celebration of light, color and powers. Some of these spaces hold only one work. Others contain more. Each room has an atmosphere of very high concentration. It's all about transformation and transfiguration. Yet another example of your very existential work on the deepest movement of the human life and experience! This exhibition holds a new kind of religious spaces. What do you think of religion? What is religion for you?

Bill Viola: Well, I think, religion is the essence of humanity. I mean really all of the arts and by this I don't only mean art as visual art and cultural art, but I mean the arts of science, of knowledge, of technology. All comes out of this sense of wonder and fear.

Friedhelm Mennekes: And fear?

B.V.: Fear, right! Fear of being destroyed by the overwhelming natural forces. And so I think that the religions give people a deeper understanding of those forces. And it brings them closer to realizing that the human existence is only one small part of the higher cosmos and the natural order.

F.M.: In today's art scene only a few artists speak about human existence. But you do it constantly. Your work is concerned with human aspects, with humanity. But not only this, you really go one step further: You're dealing with topics that go beyond direct experience; you do not shy away from addressing religion. Again: What does religion mean to you? 

B.V.: I think that the idea of religion itself is complex. It has come to mean for many people a kind of institutional comfort in the form of these great religious institutions particularly Christianity, Judaism and Islam, the three great monotheistic religions. And of course they do provide a kind of social context for people to exist in. They provide a kind of a structure that people could guide their lives with. But there's another kind of religion that interests me even more and that is in a way, perhaps the origin of religion. Which begins as a tiny little spark in the human heart that we don't even know that we have. And as we go through life, as we age and mature from childhood to adulthood, we become aware that this little spark is giving us inspiration, it's literally giving us life. And that is the origin of why there are these vast institutions of churches all over the world and people have synagogues, temples, churches, chapels in all cultures, in India, China, Europe, Africa, America. This is why people believe in something greater than themselves. But it all starts for me within us in the deepest way, and that for me is the original shine.

F.M.: I agree. There is, so to speak, a phenomenological ground for religion, which goes on to assume various aspects in the different religions. Looking to Asia you've named Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. And in other areas there are Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and other religions as well. As you know, it is very important to build bridges between these big, let's say, religions or cultural systems. What brings them all together is an understanding of religion - that every individual finds in his religion his own understanding in the world. Religion is self-transcendence of the human being. Because one's self has to deal with happiness and sufferings, beauty and fear, hope and despair. All these aspects come together within the individual and all this has to be reflected in a very personal and intelligent way. As Saint-Exupéry says: One only sees well with the heart...

B.V.: I can put it best with the words of Dschalal ad-Din ar-Rumi, the great Persian Sufi, poet and mystic. He said that the wound is the place where the light enters you. So there has to be a kind of opening. There has to be a way where you open your heart, you open your being to become vulnerable to the universe, to the natural and spiritual orders. And that kind of wound is the deepest place where all of that kind of thinking of transcendence and spirituality arises from. And I think that direction in our self, that kind of strength is needed to do that and the ability to become overwhelmed. You know our Zen-teacher in Japan, we studied Zen with a wonderful man named Dian Tanaka in Japan when we lived there 1980/81. And one day he said to me something really important that I had never thought of before. I was showing him some of my artworks and I was explaining to him how I had problems with certain pieces and he said: You must learn to work from a position of weakness. I thought that no art professor has ever told me that. You know, we're all trying to do the masterpieces, you know.

F.M.: Right, the great works, the great things.

B.V.: And here he was telling me that you had to empty yourself, you have to feel lost and when you get lost then that's the only time when you can really take the so called "leap of faith" and all the great artists, the greatest artists - at a certain point - came to the cliff and they realized that the gap between their abilities and their dreams to make something, couldn't be bridged, it couldn't be connected, so they had to just jump anyway. And you see it in all the great artists, in Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, and up to the present day. And that's when you go beyond what you even think, you know. And you're not even relying on your technical training from your profession. You're just like "Oh". And that's a most beautiful thing and it's difficult. Many times you get to the edge and you don't want to go there.

F.M.: Such crises are like the wounds you spoke of. I think that there is a connection, especially with Christianity. The wounds confront you in your innermost self. You have to know yourself, understand your limits, and know where your chances are. But when you see yourself forced to decide, forced to act, you find yourself surrounded, and borne by your tradition and language, your experience and belief. You have the support of your fundamentals, your images, and the wisdom you have acquired. All of this is creates a framework that allows us to understand our self, and our circumstances. They constitute the core, the seed, from which you take your impulses for action and behavior. Right?

B.V.: I think, what is important in what you're just saying, which I love very much, is the idea of the seed in the garden, you know. The garden is the place where things can grow and things can be nurtured and then, you know, all of a sudden one looks around and when spring comes and you have this incredibly vivid garden. But the reality of that garden is in a seed that is buried in the dark earth, that nobody sees, nobody even knows about it. You step on it with your feet and that kind of idea of the nurturing place to sustain these kinds of deep experiences and visions and longings for transcendence and something greater than ourselves, you know, can only be possible when you have this garden. And Rumi has another beautiful quote. He said: For the one who sleeps in the garden to be awakened is pure joy. But for the one who sleeps in prison to be awakened is a nuisance.

F.M.: That sounds very interesting, and reminds me somewhat of your earlier work Room for St. John of the Cross (1983).

B.V.: Well, yes.

F.M.: It's a very fruitful image, full of compelling ideas. It's the confrontation between the individual and the society, the monk and the church, the Mystic and the Inquisition.

B.V.: So we have to realize, that because of that invisible garden in the seeds, that is not yet fully formed, the seeds are so beautiful. You know, the seeds are like buried secrets of ourselves and we have to spend a lifetime understanding those.

F.M.: What I experienced over the years of following your work and its development is that there are two sources. On the one hand you directly question things and your questions deal with essential human experiences like birth and death, suffering and hope and transformation.

B.V.: Right.

F.M.: On the other side, however, you are creating new forms of art. I think that you are pressed by two forces: First the great existential questions of life, which are, in the final analysis, mostly religious questions. But you are also driven as an artist to visualize this aspect by developing and creating new forms to deliver more radical images. I think you are kind of an entrepreneur, a cultural or artistic entrepreneur, who wants to produce new images that move us and open us up to questions. These are strong and powerful images. They're new. People haven't seen them before. You're not only using variations and adaptations of art history, but science and technology. That is what makes them so powerful. 

B.V.: That's wonderful; I mean I've never heard anybody really describe it quite in that way. And I think the other thing you touched on, which for me is so vital, is the absolute unity of technology and spiritual impulse. Those two things in my mind are together. They're not fighting with each other, they're absolutely together. And I've had to literally create new ways of making images in my studio because what the industrial makers of these technologies were giving me was just not going far enough in my heart and mind. What my heart and mind was seeing, it didn't go far enough. And so at many stages in my career over the last thirty-seven years, you know, there have been times, when I just reached a point, where I needed some new kind of image making.

F.M.:  You refer to technological innovations that make it possible to see what couldn't be seen before. Is science a new aspect of a more extended spirituality?

B.V.: Yes. And I think these technologies have an incredible potential in our culture to make the invisible world real to the eyes of the human senses. And it's happening in ways we don't even think about it. I mean, if you go to the supermarket and you see a guy checking out at the counter about to pay and he has his mobile phone in his ear and he's talking to the person and while he's trying to do the transaction to pay his money to get out the store. If this was, you know, a hundred years ago you would think this guy was crazy. You would think he was like a lunatic, you know, he was mentally disturbed. Who is he talking to? And now we have the ability like the psychics and mystics... you know, you want to talk to your mother, she is in Germany, and we're in New York. In the old days you had to go to a charmer (shaman) for that. And today, you know, you go get your Nokia cell phone and you do it. So there is a conversion of this technology with age-old human desires to see far, to touch people at a distance, to see the face of your mother any time you want. I mean this is really, really profound and all of these technologies which people describe in various ways in their functional use, for me they're really even deeper than that. They come ultimately from human desire right out of the human heart.

F.M.: What has intrigued me about your work is that everything really is founded on your own experience, on your suffering, on your being overwhelmed or your discovering of deeper human or existential experience. I am thinking of your very touching story when you went into the water and you really were in great danger - a matter of life and death. But there are other examples, such as when you were overwhelmed as a father being witness to a birth or when you stayed beside your dying mother. So I really see that everything that you've developed in your work derives from your own experience. Do you need only your own experiences or is there something else, something really different, that makes things difficult to understand and where religion helps you to get it interpreted?

B.V.: Well, I think that's a really good question. You know everybody has the kind of experiences you've just described and it's really part of our human being, of the human soul. The beauty of the larger order of the spiritual and cosmic sort of rounds is that we don't have to necessarily be conscious of how they're guiding us, how they're shaping us. So that's one of the beautiful things. Those operations are going on whether we're consciously acknowledging them or not. But there is a group of people that by nature are curious. They want to understand a little bit more about what just happened. You know, where did my mother go? She was alive my whole life now she's gone. Where is that place? And that's an age-old human question we want to understand.

F.M.: Let me ask you something as a potential iconoclast. You use many images and symbols: hope, transformation and then, even more examples like rebirth or resurrection. You're establishing these old themes in a new language, expressing them by using a new grammar. One element in particular you repeatedly use is that of water. This is an image for purification, cleansing rites, renewal, and rebirth. Water is one of the four or five cosmic elements. In terms of Christianity, it is something that is connected with baptism, with changing your life, transforming it, with your own energies, forces, beliefs, inspirations, decisions. What about the images of water or baptism in your work? How do you view this expressly Christian context for an interpretation of your work?

B.V.: Well, I mean baptism is new birth, new life and literally coming into life. And I think it also is an emulation of the birth process itself. I mean the child takes nine months in this water, surrounded by darkness but hearing sounds and then it gets born into this cold, bright world and that gets recapitulated in the Christian Baptism font. The transforming power of water was known even before Christianity. People were dealing with water as a kind of purification element. So the connection to water is truly profound and you find water in all the religions around the world, even in very primitive ones. All have a connection to water. It is the physical representation of the life force of life.

F.M.: The bible is full of stories and images connected to water, take the story of the Red Sea for example. Crossing it is a rebirth of the people. And you have used such an image in your own work. Your early video, called Crossing (1996), deals with a sort of rebirth of the people, but even your more recent works do this. Let's come to this beautiful image here, this very complex image. You have given it the title Pneuma (1994/2009). Pneuma is deeply rooted in the Greek language. It can describe the beginning of life, as well as the spirit, its fundamental form, because it has to do with movements in the world, winds, breeze, and breath. It is also a word for creative powers, for a cosmic substance of God's presence. For example, here in this room the installation of Pneuma surrounds you on all four walls. Nothing is clear. There are no images, but only allusions in traditional forms, black and white, light and dark, silence and sound, like a living rhythm of pulsation. You are immersed in this moving and vivid image around you. You see a little baby under the heart of its mother. After a long time of darkness it seems that it sees something like awakening light, right in the middle of darkness there is a not extinguishable light, life. The light in the water? The water as light?

B.V.: Well. I can talk for a long time about what you said. I was very inspired by an Andalusian Sufi-Master of the 13th century called Ibn Arabi. He talks about the three great reservoirs of humanity: the unborn, the living and the dead. And that really touched me a lot. He also said that the self is an ocean without a shore. It has no beginning or no end in this world and the next. So he's talking about us as eternal beings, but because we live in the physical world and we're incarnated in our bodies which eventually must sort of wear out and turn to dust: we kind of only think about things in terms of our own human life, but ultimately we are eternal and there is a whole system that encloses us; and these two great infinite reservoirs with this infinite ocean for me is a very powerful image.

F.M.: Pneuma has to do with the idea of coming to life, the threshold from ‘not to be' to ‘to be'. It's the calling into existence.

B.V.: Yes, these images to me are at the threshold between existence and non-existence. Or I can put it more literally; they are between being insubstantial and real, and being simply internal and imaginary-a part of the imagination and the inner psyche. So these are images in a non-formed state.

F.M.: In your exhibition on Bodies of Light there is a kind of open images. They're openly vague images with respect to their inner meaning. I am thinking of Poem B (The Guest House) (2006) or even Bodies of Light (2006). They do not provide enough information to tell you something definite so that you might really understand what you're looking at.

B.V.: Yes, sometimes you see people with flowers, you see doors and houses and this constant coming and going. So for me these images are more about memory than perception. And I think that's a really important issue of our time. I think obviously a few look at the history of Christianity as the idea of ‘memoria,' of this idea of remembrance. The Sufis have the same thing: the remembrance of God. So memories are very, very important.

F.M.: In our days we're accustomed to obtaining quick information. We are dominated by impulsive urges to act, make decisions, vote, buy things...

B.V.: I think in the information age it's critical to understand that we're literally drowning in information. That these forces around us - these corporate and economic forces - are filling us with so many details, so much information that we have no room for ourselves. So this kind of empty image that you see, these kind of flickering little points of light, is the ground of being, that we emerge from and from which emerges all of our thoughts. So this piece really is a kind of memory theatre that allows you to actually see things. And you see things in this work that are not there because there is no information to see.

F.M.: But the Latin word ‘memoria' in the Christian sense stands for certain contents of belief, but at the same time it also always indicates the active force for being able to recognize these contents, the ‘pneuma', the spirit, and thus an active dynamics of understanding. And we mean not only the spirit, but also a constantly present power, which moves you, talks to you, inspires and directs you. And at the end it is always a creative energy - as we read in Psalm 103.5 - "So that thy youth is renewed like the eagle." To come back to the question of religion, to touch this aspect of life, you don't have to serve within a certain system of religious denominations; you don't have to follow a certain rule of rites. If you are interested in these questions you just have to follow them. But do they have, simply as questions, an influence on your images, new forms, any kind of inspiration?

B.V.: Completely, totally. I mean these are not my images. You know. I don't know ... I mean, yes, technically I made them, but before I made all these images, I saw them. They came in to me. And sometimes they came in to me after a long struggle with trying to find them alone. As you know, you've been to my study and I actually don't work in my studio usually. I only work in my studio when I conceptualize the piece to a very high level, when I can understand what I want to make. But I spend most of my time in my study, where we had that lovely afternoon together with my tea and my books. That's where I really make my art. And a lot of it has to do with waiting with preparing oneself or a visitation of some sort. For me that is the fundamental aspect of my work. So I don't really think these are my images in the sense that I own them, these are my images in the sense that something came in to me and I could then see clearly enough to know where to point the camera and how to use my technology.

F.M.: When we talk, we often come to this point. If you don't mind, please allow me to address this issue. When it comes to speaking about your consciousness, the way you feel and think and who you are, I think: He's on the same level as I am. He's a monk. For example, when you deal with Catherine of Sienna, St. John of the Cross, or quote Meister Eckhart and even others, then I think, "He's a religious person". I've been wondering if you studied religion.

B.V.: I took a class at Syracuse University in religion, yes. 

F.M.: Did these studies give you your religious knowledge? Or was there some sort of education in your childhood that provided you with experiences and insights in these fields? What brought you, as an artist, to use the concept of Pneuma?

B.V.: I was born at the right time, because religion has been under a crisis especially in the late 20th century through to today. I hear a lot about it from my friends, particularly those in the Christian world. They are talking about how church congregations are losing members and there's a lot of concern. But I find that this is an age of spiritual renewal. And personally, I had to leave behind my Christian training as an Episcopalian. When I was a young boy, and moved out into the world, all of a sudden, in the bookstores at my university, I was discovering people like Rumi, the Islamic poet and mystic. I was discovering Meister Eckhart and I was discovering these incredible mystics. The class that I took in religion was actually a class on mysticism and that was quite interesting. I think that the mystics have a very special place in world culture today. And I think the way forward for all of us, how to balance the spiritual with the material, is going to come a lot from their work, because the mystics are very similar to contemporary artists.

F.M.: None of you have a safety net. Contemporary artists, like monks, are not employees of states, churches, or corporations. There is no guarantee for their success.

B.V.: Yes, we were kicked out of the palaces a while ago. The only people today in the current economic cultural system we have that are up at the peak where a Michelangelo or a Raphael were, are the commercial film makers, people like Steven Spielberg, because he can walk into the White House anytime he wants. I can't and yet my colleagues in the Renaissance could walk right in the Medici's Palace to talk with them and so we've been sort of put in the "Salon des refusés", which I think bestows another kind of strength and power. Just like the mystics who were also put aside because they were crazy and they were not paying attention to the order of the Orthodoxy. I think that's a very interesting analogy, because the way forward from the American perspective is through the individual and this is not, let's say, a healthy thing, but at times it's necessary. For example, when great revolutions happen, in whatever field, there's certain group of individuals, who see something that the whole society doesn't see anymore. Big institutions are too big and too fixed and too locked in to see that. And so this constantly growing of things and creation of things is an important thing and the individual plays a huge part in that.

F.M.: Here is where the mystic, and you in your position as an artist with insight, play a major role in my opinion. You are both virtually prophetic. By prophet I mean here someone who knows what to do at crucial moments and indicates the direction to be taken. This is where you assume an important role in art and society, at a time when we find ourselves in the midst of a global crisis.

B.V.: Oh, wow... thank you. I don't know what quite to say about that.

F.M.: You bring a new attraction into art. You challenge the viewer to really take the time, devote the attention, and invest the physical openness these images need. You forcefully urge the people to take a stand concerning these lively images, and react to them.

B.V.: Let me say just one thing, though you touched on it before and I didn't get a chance to complete my thought or respond to you: There was a certain time - I mean it wasn't in art school - when it was all about images and learning techniques. But then, maybe when I was in my forties, I began to realize that these machines, these cameras that are being recorded with right now are really simple machines that are able to apprehend light. They are able to take in the actual photons of light that are floating around in the cosmos and they can pour in also these sound waves that are coming out of our mouth and out in the world. And they can actually capture them, hold them and then they can - at a later date - replay them. That's a very mysterious, beautiful process that I don't think I'll ever really completely understand and I don't want to analyze it too much, but it's really important. But at a certain time for me I began to realize that the images afterwards were not truly visible. I spent most of my younger life shooting the world around me and I get an image of a tree. I love trees. I would go out and shoot a tree. See it later on my video-screen: beautiful. I felt satisfied. At a certain point I didn't feel satisfied anymore because I kept asking myself what is underneath that tree? What's inside that tree? Why is that tree here? And realizing of course that tree, like everything, is a momentary structure of time. If you come back in a thousand years the tree won't be there. Where will the James Cohan Gallery be in a thousand years, a million years? So, I began to ask those questions and then go beneath the surface.

F.M.: And so you continue to ask questions. Going onwards by questioning. Have you been moved by the inventive power inherent to such questions? Have they led you to new forms?

B.V.: Look, I could shoot images like this, which comes out of a kind of a dream or a memory, and now people who have these same experiences but didn't have a way to see them outside themselves, can understand them. And this is my own journey, just working to understand more things and touch more things, and if I can bring other people along and give them some experience that they can use, that's wonderful. I mean I do not care if my art is pretty, if it gets the best review in the New York Times or if it sells a lot of work in the gallery. What I care about is if it's useful. Is it useful? Can you use it? I discovered this in Japan in 1980. My wife Kira and I were living there on a cultural exchange program and we were in the Suntory Art Museum. There was an exhibition with these beings that come down to earth to help human beings. We had been alone in the museum all morning and we're standing looking at these beautiful life-size statues in a row, about twelve of them, and they were very ancient-from the Middle Ages. I had my guide book out and were reading about the statues and while we were reading a little old Japanese lady came in and she kind of pushed past me a little bit and I said: "Oh, excuse me." And she went down the row of statues with this silk prayer scarf and she put it on each one, bowed to each one and put it to each one. I watched her do this. And then she turned around with a very deep bow to all of them and she walked out. And I was shocked because number one you shouldn't touch the art works in the museum. I was shocked at that because even though the guard was there, he didn't do anything.

F.M.: She showed you what you were missing in art and in your experience with art?

B.V.: Yes, she just showed me that it's not about looking at the form, reading the dates, finding the styles. You know, that's part of it, but I realized what I had been doing up until that point was behaving like a guy who looks at a computer and at the display of the computer: keyboard is here, the screen is here, the hard drive is here and everything is separated and it's not plugged in. So you're just looking at these objects like design objects and she was the one that came in and turned on art. So it became living, breathing, real power. When we were living in Japan we realized all these temples had these beings, had spiritual power. When I came back to America going to the museums here and in Europe, in Germany wherever it's the same thing. If you're quiet and you're sensitive you feel them, talking to you. And this is for me a very real, serious thing. This is real. 

F.M.: Right in the middle of this exhibition you have this beautiful work Four Hands and I think it's something that actually conveys this ideal feeling: On the inside, and even on the outside, you are less concerned about how you have made it than about its radiance and what it conveys.

B.V.: It's a whole.

F.M.: Right.

B.V.: That's the whole. The whole is everything. Really!

F.M.: Thank you Bill, thank you very much.


Printed in:
Marek Wasilewski (Ed), The Unknown as We Know it, a collection of essays published in dialog with THE UNKNOWN - the subject of the 3rd Mediations Biennale, Poznan, PL, (University of Arts Poznan) 2012, pp. 78-88.