He is the first living artist ever to be given a solo show at London’s National Gallery. I’d never heard of him until two days ago, when I read a story about him and his show in the Financial Times. From the story:
- Viola said, ‘the public is always looking for one lock and one key to my work, and in fact there are many doors, many locks, many keys, that all lead to the same place.’
East and West share an ‘underground root system’ which gives him his points of reference. ‘East and West stood on common ground until the Renaissance. The vital break came in the West when people figured out they could paint the material world according to what this [he points to his eyes] sees and not what this [he points to his heart] sees. The Eastern tradition never went there. It has always understood the symbolic dimension.’
His mother’s death in the early 1990s was a key moment for Viola the artist as well as Viola the son. ‘When I saw my parents leave the world, what I saw on the bed after they took their last breath was not them. It looked like them but it was nothing to do with how they were. And that was shocking to me. After my mother died, having had that visceral, real, physical experience, this thing here [he points to his head] was racing to catch up but it couldn’t. I was just overcome with grief and awe. And that is when I saw things… that I had never seen, and understood things I had never understood before.’
Further epiphany came when he broke down in front of a painting of a crying Madonna in Chicago. ‘That came as a shock. And I realized it wasn’t about art school or all the knowledge I had acccumulated, it was just this emotional necessity to release.
Viola sees a strong connection between the 15th century and what is happening now, making a number of direct analogies: between the discovery of perspective in paintings and that of three-dimensional computer graphics; the invention of printing and the spread of the Internet; the founding of America and the landing of a man on the moon.