It was a cold wet Bank Holiday Monday as I climbed the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and made my way down the right hand aisle to the four screens of Bill Viola’s recently installed video, Martyrs, hoping, in the dank greyness, for a little spiritual nurture. I expected the screens to be bigger, more like those of his famous Nantes Triptych where the viewer is engulfed by the processes of birth and death being enacted out in front of them. Originally conceived to be shown in a 17th century chapel in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nantes in 1992, it employs the triptych form, traditionally used in Western art for religious paintings, to represent through the medium of video, Viola’s contemporary spiritual iconography. But the individual videos in St. Paul’s, each based on the four fundamental elements and encased side by side in a simple metal frame like a modern altar screen, are much smaller, closer to the size of traditional paintings.
Encountering Bill Viola’s images within this bulwark of Anglicanism implies a certain ecumenicalism, as though the church no longer minds much whether art works are ‘traditionally’ Christian, so long as they are broadly ‘spiritual’. The canon chancellor of St. Paul’s, the Reverend Mark Oakley, describes the piece as “not explicitly Christian… but a Christian looking at it will find resonances”. A crucified man hangs upside down by his feet, as water pours over him, in the far right screen. St. Peter was crucified in this way and lived by water. The scene also suggests full baptismal immersion and subsequent redemption as the hanging figure ascends feet-first, arms outstretched like an angel’s wings. For non-Christians the image might elicit darker thoughts of water-boarding and torture. It’s a work open to interpretation by those of faith and those of no faith, and asks the prescient question: what is worth dying for?
Viola is one of the artists who must be credited with moving video into the mainstream. Three of this year’s Turner prize nominees use the form as their chosen medium. But he has his detractors as well as supporters. One critic savagely described The Passions, shown at The National Gallery in London, as “a master of the overblown…tear-jerking hocus-pocus and religiosity” and, it’s true, that he does walk a fragile line between the ineffable and the naffly bathetic. Yet the Nantes Triptych, which simultaneously features a woman in labour, a man submerged in water and an image of the artist’s dying mother has rarely been bettered as a visual expression of the cycle of life and death, while in Tiny Deaths, made in 1993 and again on show at Tate Modern, ghostly figures emerge in a darkened space, where light and sound bring about potent moments of drama.
Fire, Water, Air and Earth have long been used by neo-pagans and occultists to represent the forces of nature and spiritual aspects of ourselves and our relationship to the divine. Their physical properties were considered to be the outward manifestation of the Elements themselves. The human organism was supposed to contain all four elements. Disruption of their delicate harmony was believed to give rise to disease. These elements were also thought to form man’s character: choleric, sanguine, melancholic or phlegmatic. According to Galen, the prominent Greek physician, the four humours: yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), blood (air), and phlegm (water) were used by Hippocrates to describe the human body. Fire was primarily hot and secondarily dry. Air primarily wet and secondarily hot. Water primarily cold and secondarily wet. Earth primarily dry and secondarily cold. This elemental system, was also adopted into medieval alchemy. The videos in St. Paul’s start in stillness. A crouched figure, reminiscent of Caliban, is hunkered amid a pile of earth. Slowly he stands up and unfolds like a flower as the soil blows off him. On the next screen is a woman, her feet and hands bound by rope. She wears a simple white shift. As a wind beings to blow she is wafted backwards and forwards by its force. In the adjacent video a black man sits on a chair. Gradually individual sparks drop down beside him before engulfing him in flames. Martyrs burnt at the stake as heretics come to mind, as do the cataclysmic events of 9/11 when so many died for so-called ideological beliefs. Ethnically motivated crimes such as the necklacing of South African victims during apartheid with burning rubber tyres are also invoked. As the video cycle concludes the inverted figure ascends into the air and disappears in a cascade of water, while the other three close their eyes and turn their faces heavenwards in beatific contemplation.
Viola has talked of having roots in “both eastern and western art as well as spiritual traditions, including Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism.” He has travelled to meet the Dali Lama in northern India and while some may describe his as a pick-and-mix Glastonbury religiosity, others will find it refreshing that a contemporary artist eschews easy irony to engage with big philosophical ideas. Of course, what he is doing is appropriating the historic symbolism of great European religious art: the frescos of Giotto, the panels of Duccio, the paintings of El Greco. There’s a timeless quality to his images that looks back to the Quattrocento and Renaissance, as well as to the present day with its complex political events.
It has been argued that ritual is not a response to meaning, but a way of creating meaning in order to fill the Void. Viola explores the spaces between representation and reality, expression and experience allowing for critical and creative thinking that is neither dogmatic nor didactic. At his best he creates milieus that are inclusive rather than exclusive, where we are both subject and ‘other’, ‘other ‘and subject, beyond easy classification. In these spaces he gives us the chance to explore the ground between the body and the spirit, between other-worldliness and the material. In an era where we seem to have been left with only the eternal present of late capitalism, where nerves are frayed by the recent European political earthquakes, where the centre seems not to be holding and, as Yeats warned, the best seem to lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, Bill Viola’s work appears to offer ways in which to consider the broadly sacred in a complex secular world.
Martyrs is on view at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Tiny Deaths is showing at Tate Modern, London SE1 until Spring 2015.