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Bill Viola

American, born 1951

Photograph by Kira Perov. Image courtesy Bill Viola Studio LLC.

The Messenger, 1996

Sound and video installation, edition 3/3
Running time: 28 minutes, 28 seconds
Sarah Norton Goodyear Fund, 1996

Bill Viola is a leading figure among artists working in new media. His practice focuses on ideas that are fundamental to the human experience. By directly addressing the inexpressible experiences of life, Viola’s work demonstrates how the new medium of video can develop the timeless themes shared by art and faith, just as painting and sculpture have for centuries. Like the greatest examples of these more traditional arts, however, even the seductive power of civilization’s most extraordinary inventions are unable to alter life’s greatest events and its unchangeable realities. To name this work, Viola chose the metaphor of “the messenger,” but lets the viewer decide what he might mean by it. In this installation, we cannot help but remember that we are at the mercy of the elements—air, water, earth, and fire—and, by extension, that we cannot alter the great events of our lives: birth, death, and love.

The Messenger, 1996, was the first video installation to enter the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s Collection. It was originally commissioned in 1996 for Durham Cathedral—one of England’s great gothic churches—by an Anglican organization called The Chaplaincy to the Arts and Recreation in North East England. Subsequently, it was presented at Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière, a famous Catholic hospital chapel in Paris. Although this work was originally conceived to be shown in a religious context, it remains timeless, even in an art museum.


About the Artist

Bill Viola was born in New York in 1951. In 1973, he received a BFA in Experimental Studios from Syracuse University, where he studied visual art with Jack Nelson and electronic music with Franklin Morris. He holds honorary doctorates from Syracuse University (1995), The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1997), the California Institute of the Arts (2000), and the Royal College of Art, London (2004), among others, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2000. In 1998, Viola was invited to be a Scholar at the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, and, in 2009, he received the Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2006 he was awarded Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. Since the early 1970s, Viola’s video artworks have been seen all over the world. A solo exhibition of his work was presented at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1987, and, from 1992 to 1994, seven of his installations toured six venues in Europe, organized by the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and Kira Perov. Viola represented the United States at the 46th Venice Biennale, in 1995, and, in 1997, the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, organized Bill Viola: A 25-Year Survey—featuring more than thirty-five installations and videotapes—which traveled for two years to six museums in the United States and Europe. One of the largest exhibitions of Viola’s installations to date, Bill Viola: Hatsu-Yume (First Dream), 2006–07, drew more than 340,000 visitors to the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Viola is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1989, and the first Medienkunstpreis in 1993, presented jointly by Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, and Siemens Kulturprogramm, Germany. Viola has been instrumental in the establishment of video as a vital form of contemporary art and, in so doing, has helped to greatly expand its scope in terms of technology, content, and historical reach. Viola currently lives and works in Long Beach, California.


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