Blog Arts

BILL VIOLA / MICHELANGELO: LIFE, DEATH, REBIRTH

Robynne Limoges / London Comments / for The3NinesArts.com

At the ROYAL ACADEMY OF ARTS, London 26 January 2019 - 31 March 2019
Portrait of Bill Viola for Musee Magazine by Paul Rusconi, 2014

In its Winter 2018 edition of the RA, magazine of the Royal Academy, the Editor discusses the RA's choice of pairing the work of Bill Viola, a 21st century master of video and installation, with the work of Michelangelo. The Editor writes "...the exhibition argues that in divided times art can explore what we share across centuries and continents: ideas and emotions about the truths of our finite lives." 

The RA owns the Michelangelo's Tondo Taddei marble (The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John) and adds to that glorious focal point (created the same year as his David), a selection of his breathtaking drawings. In 2006 Viola saw the Windsor Castle collection of Michelangelo's drawings and found an affirmation of his own belief in the power of philosophical thought and sacred ideology, powerful physicality and human yearning for transcendence. As a young man he worked in Florence one block away from Michelangelo's David, at the Academia, and it was in Florence, being face to face with the Renaissance, that he felt art history finally lift off the page.

Michelangelo and Bill Viola make manifest their beliefs, their philosophical grappling with the most immense truths of existence. For both, the figure dominates, both spatially and conceptually. For those of have stood in front of Michelangelo's Pieta, the astounding, stupefying power of loss, the enormity of surrender will be familiar. 

Through the works of both of these artists, we are inspired, daunted by scale and the hugeness of human themes. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that the exhibition also transforms us momentarily. It heightens our perception of the world's inherent wondrousness, allows us to be unashamed in our own search for meaning, reminds us of the pitiableness of our own endings. Their art is both messenger and conveyance of the profoundness of the experience of being alive and then...not being alive.

Michelangelo Buronarroti, portion of Tondo Taddei

There are many ways one can begin to talk about Bill Viola's astonishing work, which incorporates larger than life size videos, electronics, sound and still imagery. In this case, I will begin chronologically, with a memory he shared during an interview with Christian Lund, for his show at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and no doubt in many other interviews. He recounted an experience that informed him forever: that what is real to the soul lay beneath the surface of things and in the spaces between things. 

At six years old, he fell into a lake, sinking slowly to the lake's bottom. During his descent he tells of seeing all the unseen and therefore unimagined - to a six-year old - real life of, in, beneath, through the medium of water. The mud, the plant life dancing in ways previously unexperienced, the mysteriousness of light patterning through this brand new substance, no doubt tiny organisms, perhaps a glint off a disappearing gill or tail. He does not, at least in that interview, describe the experience as one of trauma and therefore unforgettable or of fear at having almost died and therefore, being forever shaded by the accident. 

'The Martyrs: Earth, Air, Fire, Water' 

He recounts it instead as a kind of revelation, and the memory was awakened when at the end of high school in 1969 he was introduced to a rudimentary video camera. The experience would change his way of seeing forever. Through the tiny display, onto that screen he saw the external world bathed in a blueish light. That blueish light evoked the memory of falling through water, being immersed in water, being inside the 'beneath'.

It is no surprise then that water became the dominant medium through which he could examine themes that mattered to him, that could illuminate his life-long path through the writings of Islamic mystics, Buddhism, Sufism, Greek mythology, Jungian philosophy, Christianity. Viola explores in beautiful and shocking and harrowing ways the experiences of birth, life, death and their attendant mysteries, paradoxes, stillness and poetry. 

Viola is constantly innovative in the ways he expresses his themes and it is difficult to distill the range of experiences the viewer is offered. He is recognised as not only a pioneer of video art but as a visionary in how he uses ever expanding technological tools to express his interpretations of the stages of existence. 

©Bill Viola, still from video Inverted Birth

His 2014 work Inverted Birth is a video/sound installation of a high definition colour video projection on a screen mounted vertically and anchored to the floor in a dark room, with stereo sound. He shows a series of violent actions run in reverse, as though the person is given the gift of awakening from the dead, and the point of transformation, a birth or a rebirth. His Emergence of 2002 explores the same simultaneity of birth/death/consciousness experience.

He has spoken about video/film as being the best medium for expressing emotion, because to him emotion is a kind of movement. To illustrate, he describes Passage, a work first shown at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, in 1987. The tape that was edited for the piece was 23 minutes long, but the playback machine he used plays it at 1/16th speed, so the viewer sees the subject one frame at a time. The scene is a 4-year old's birthday party. The event becomes so stretched in time, that the essence of each child's emotions is revealed, elevating a so-called every day event into a stream of contemplation.

Viola's titles are important pathways to the ideas he is devoted to. He has spoken about the first time he had the courage to give a title to an installation work he had created that said exactly what it meant to him. I think this is a lesson to contemporary image makers, perhaps, to be bold enough to know what a work means to the maker and to let the title reflect that meaning. The title was Room for St John of the Cross. The 1983 installation was a statement of his commitment to the benevolent writings of St John of the Cross after the Spanish mystic's prolonged anguish at the hands of torturers. The response of the critics was disparaging, to say the least, but for Viola, the experience liberated him.

Martyrs, by Viola and Kira Perov (2014) shows four individuals, across four vertical screens. Each is being martyred by one of the four elements: earth, wind, fire and water. Flames rain down, water cascades in a roar, winds rage and the earth explodes. But his intent is for us to think upon this: throughout their torture, each martyr is given passage through the deep darkness into the light. 

The depth of emotional involvement one feels in the presence of Michelangelo's and Bill Viola's works demands only that we shed the carapace grown in defense of the world's self-consciousness about expressing our emotions publicly. I recommend you see the show alone, absorb it at a pace intimate to yourself. 

Be enthralled. Be reminded that the place of art is at the centre of the biggest subjects. Be reminded that art is embedded in the mysterious experience of being human.

Royal Academy of Arts

Burlington House, Piccadilly

London W1J 0BD

Open Saturday through Thursday 10.00am - 6.00pm

Open Friday 10.00am - 10.00pm

©Bill Viola


© Bill Viola, from the Martyrs video
©Bill Viola, stills from ocean without a shore, 2007
© Bill Viola, still from tempest (study for the raft) 2005
©Bill Viola, stills from The Dreamers, 7 channels of HD video on 7 plasma displays mounted
'The Crossing', 1996 
'The Ascension' 2000 
'The Raft' , 2004 
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