Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait

November 18, 2016 - May 7, 2017

“Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait”—the National Portrait Gallery’s first exhibition entirely devoted to media art—offered a new interpretation of the work of the pioneering video artist as a career-long experimentation with portraiture. Viola (born 1951) has long been recognized for his groundbreaking and masterful use of video technologies, creating poetic works that explore the spiritual and perceptual side of human experience and search for a deeper understanding of the world around us. From the moment Viola picked up the Portapak camera in the early 1970s, he realized that video would be his lifelong medium of expression.

Although Viola’s work has been the subject of numerous surveys, it has not been considered in terms of its sustained engagement with—indeed, reshaping of—the genre of portraiture. As the works in this exhibition reveal, Viola’s technological investigations rely on the language of the face and body, encouraging self-reflection as well as expressing the universality of our experiences and articulating metaphysical issues about our place in the world. No other artist has pressed us to confront these questions in such elegant, humanistic terms.

“Bill Viola: The Moving Portrait” not only shed light on forty years of artistry but also the ways that portraiture extends beyond likeness. The exhibition inviteed visitors to embark on a journey, one that begins with Viola’s raw and unnerving self-portraits and moves through some of the most poignant portrayals of the human life cycle. Ultimately, it opened our eyes to the way in which emerging technologies draw out our perpetual impulses toward self-representation and collective contemplation, and asked us to reimagine what we know about portraiture.