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This Friday, Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait opens at the National Portrait Gallery, marking the largest showing of Viola’s work ever in D.C.. We, for one, here at BYT are very excited for it. So much so that, this Thursday, we are partnering with NPG on a big, shiny, INTO THE BLUE opening event for the exhibition, feat. Junior Boys, Nuex and Chris Burns, which is also the final BYT museum after hours event this year.

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The work of the pioneering video artist tackles themes of identity, mortality and human emotion in its many shapes and forms is truly something special and visceral and much needed in these vulnerable times we find ourselves in.

And while the work truly has to be experienced, we did catch up with exhibition curator Asma Naeem to offer some additional insight into Viola’s work and the “saga” of bringing this show together.

Read / make plans to celebrate the exhibition with us this Thursday / plan to revisit it often.

BYT: Tell us about how you first encountered Bill’s work and what prompted your deeper interest in it? Was it love at first sight or…? 

Asma Naeem:I first encountered Bill’s work as an undergrad art history major. I did love it but in a way very different from how I do now. Back then, I was so mesmerized by the video process that I wasn’t really absorbing the larger meanings of his works like I do now. His themes of aging, spirituality, and mortality are really deep and resonate more with me now that I am older.

BYT: How long did this exhibition take to put together and what was the relationship between you, as a curator and Bill, as an artist? Any interesting stories, opinions? 

AN: This exhibition took years to come together! Truly a saga! From the earliest moments when our director, Kim Sajet, broached the subject to all the incredible design, lighting, and technical buildout that our nineteenth-century historical building had to go through, it’s been a lot of talented people working countless hours to make this happen. The relationship between me, Bill, and his wife, Kira Perov, who is the executive director of Viola Studios, has been one of the most wonderful things to emerge from this experience. I have the utmost admiration and respect of Bill and Kira’s knowledge of the artworks and the way they have collaboratively approached the creative process over the decades is a thing of beauty. I tried to listen to their opinions on how their work approaches portraiture. I also couldn’t help but notice how many times Bill turned to self-portraiture in his art. Bill and Kira really responded to that, so it was a nice evolution in the selection of the works, and even nicer to see how all of these works resonate with each other.

BYT: Why this retrospective now, and here at the National Portrait Gallery…. 

AN: The Portrait Gallery is devoted to both historical and contemporary stories and movements in portraiture- we’ve always been doing contemporary art shows. For Viola in particular, we are really excited to draw connections between how we use technology today and the ways that we image each other in art – expand our understanding of portraiture beyond the selfie if you will. No other artist’s work speaks to this intersection of portraying ourselves and cutting edge technology than Bill Viola. Our historic Patent Office building underwent expensive renovations to accommodate all the cabling and infrastructure that today’s media arts require so we are prepared to show the latest in media art from here on out.

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Bill Viola: The Raft

BYT: When people say PORTRAIT, painting/drawing and photography are still the first things that pop into mind – how do you see video and film’s role in portraiture – what do they allow us that older mediums didn’t, and do they also restrict us in some ways by showing more? 

AN: Interesting question. All media depends on the artist’s vision or conceptualization. The art of making a portrait can take different directions even within one medium. For video and film, the durational aspect, a narrative or set of images unfolding over time, showing movement, and sometimes accompanied by sounds and/or music, the portrait veers closer to – and at the same time can depart from – our lived reality. You see a person from different angles, their gestures, how they move through space – all add to our sense of a person’s character.

BYT: Bill has said “emotion is a kind of movement” – and his videos have plenty of both – what are some of emotions we can look forward to seeing (and experiencing) at the exhibition? 

AN: Everything from sorrow, frustration, rebellion, regret, fear, to peacefulness and gratitude

BYT: Bill also often works with GROUPS of people vs individuals and his subjects are often anonymous to the viewer – does this present a challenge for connecting with the pieces or sort of liberates the viewer? 

AN: I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how the anonymous subjects in Bill’s work – individuals and groups alike- will move you and make you think about yourself and the people that inhabit your world. For all of his technical mastery and sophistication, there is a basic sense that Bill gets us, and all of the struggles and joys we go through in life.

BYT: For those unfamiliar with Bill Viola’s work – select both a piece you feel is unmissable / a good gateway and tell us why?

AN: You cannot miss The Raft! Both in terms of sound and magnitude! It was commissioned for the 2006 Athens Olympics and offers a message of hope in the face of disaster and doom. This work takes Viola’s fascination with water (which began when he was a child and nearly drowned) and emotions to a whole new level. Bill’s classic slow motion technique  is used to masterful effect.

Bill Viola: The Raft

Bill Viola: The Raft

BYT: What are some of the themes the audience can be on the look-out for? And how do these themes connect? 

AN: Spirituality, contemplation, mortality, emotional journeys, the power of water – all touch on different facets of our shared human experience and ask the universal questions about the meaning of life and our existence.  Deep stuff!

BYT: Is the retrospective chronological, thematic, or… something completely different from these classic methods? 

AN: This show is different from the retrospective Paris show in 2014 because it focuses on how often and in different ways Bill turned to the language of portraiture – using the face and body – in his video art. I think visitors will be really surprised to see how many times he turned the camera on himself, too.

BYT: Which work did you find the most challenging, as a curator – which seemed to defy you the most? 

AN: The work I found most challenging was The Reflecting Pool. It’s the earliest work in the show, from 1977-79, and is interesting conceptually and philosophically. Bill was experimenting with a lot of self-imaging at the time, and the work draws on all the metaphorical associations of water such as rebirth, the flowing of time, etc. I won’t spoil it but as the work unfolds, some surprising things happen and you can’t stop thinking about the work after you leave.

BYT: And vice versa – is there a piece that is your personal favorite and why? 

AN: I actually love the Reflecting Pool for its innovative editing and theme, and it’s so early and feels so “retro.”

Bill Viola: The Reflecting Pool

Bill Viola: The Reflecting Pool

BYT: Can we expect more multi-media art shown at the NPG? 

AN: YES! Media arts are here to stay and as we’ve seen with the selfie, new technologies are always being used to explore the idea of portraiture!

BYT: Finally, anything else interesting you’d like to share about the exhibition, please do ….

AN: The show is a journey! Some people will cry and some will only absorb what they see once they walk away and are sitting on the couch at home. The main goal is for all of you to be immersed in the work and forget about your life for a few minutes while experiencing one of the most talented video artists in the world.

Join the journey this week.

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