Bill Viola at St. Paul's

Following Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s recent exhibition of Bill Viola, it seems appropriate to review his St. Paul’s video, not only in view of the importance of this particular commission and its location, but more interestingly because Viola’s works have often been as much installations as video pieces. For Viola, the content of his video panels is no more important than their setting and presentation. In his best work, viewers are often struck by a curious, almost tangible, sense of presence: the sort of embodied spatial awareness more usually associated with sculpture that goes well beyond the flatness of the screen, much as Susan Philipsz’s sound-pieces create a sense of architectural space using only loud-speakers. If the St. Paul’s video is less concerned with sculpting or moulding time than some of his other recent pieces, this is thanks to his uncanny talent for making the viewer aware of the sympathetic resonance between the dimensions of internal and external space. Viola describes himself as ‘sculpting time’, and indeed the recent Grand Palais retrospective of his work used ‘sculpter du temps’ as its by-line. Here, works such as the installations Room for St John of the Cross (1983) and The Veiling (1995) demonstrated his fluid command of plastic space.

For fifteen years, two great cathedrals have faced each other across the Thames, linked only by the slenderest of thoroughfares. St. Paul’s, London’s premier cathedral of Christ, occupies the higher ground; Tate Modern, cathedral of Modern Art, is London’s shrine to secular modernism, benignly presided over by Pope Nicholas. In a remarkable gesture of reconciliation, the two great rivals have co-operated on a major joint project, the commissioning of Bill Viola to produce two video panels for St. Paul’s Cathedral, of which the first is now installed in the south Quire aisle. While belonging to the Tate, it is on permanent loan to the cathedral. Even so, is this truly a sign of reconciliation between ancient adversaries (viz. the second commandment)? Some conservative commentators suggest that it represents Mother Church gladly welcoming back into her bosom the prodigal son of contemporary art, traditionally her handmaiden since the conversion of Constantine in the fifth century. However, others fear the work is a Trojan Horse or a cuckoo in the nest – perhaps a harbinger of the triumph of art, not only over State (entrance to Tate Modern is subsidised and free, to St. Paul’s a realistic £15), but now over Church too. Has the Cathedral become simply a usefully atmospheric annexe to Tate Modern’s own rather characterless white galleries – or is there an implicit spirituality in contemporary art, to which the Tate has just awoken?

The work itself is inspired by the lives of the martyrs, as copiously documented throughout Christian art, and there is a memorial to Modern Martyrs in the north Quire aisle nearby honouring Anglicans who have died for their faith since 1850. In the video, we see four actors (three men, one woman) undergoing torture by earth, air, fire and water, the four elements. Each begins ‘left for dead in a horrible place’ as the artist put it in a recent interview. Then ‘something happens inside them’ and they emerge into light, triumphant after their ordeal – one even ascends upwards through the air.

The video is characterised by Viola’s habitually very high production values; the piece was made jointly with his wife, the artist Kira Perov. The sheer quality of the piece is easily on a par with any of the surrounding funerary monuments, and the work makes the most of its location in the south Quire aisle, which it complements beautifully. Its distinctively minimal frame was designed by Norman Foster. According to Canon Mark Oakley, the Cathedral’s Canon Chancellor, who is largely responsible for the Cathedral Arts Programme, the Viola is very popular especially with young people, as it speaks their language, unlike much else at St. Paul’s. Indeed, its popularity is such that, bizarrely, it has to be turned off during services, the very time when one might have thought religious art would be most helpful.

Is it then a genuinely pioneering piece of sacred art, expanding the Christian sensibilities St. Paul’s enshrines through its use of a relatively new medium, or is St. Paul’s being used simply to house a work of secular post-modernity? Viola himself has said that he has been interested in the ‘spiritual side of things’ since he was very young: ‘But the form it took was me, in a very quiet way, simply looking with great focus at the ordinary things around me that I found wondrous.’ (The Guardian, Saturday Review, 24.5.14, p 14). The ‘looking at ordinary things with great focus’ often works out as photographing people in super-high definition film, and replaying the film at a snail’s pace to increase its mesmerising charge – perhaps not unlike the way Rembrandt uses chiaroscuro to isolate the essence of the human drama. Here, however, the temporality is less sacral, and it is the impassive response of the isolated actors to their fate, and the use of light to signify their final victory, that achieves the effect of making the ordinary extraordinary.

The visitor is given no knowledge of who the four figures are, nor why they are suffering their lonely ordeals. They are represented isolated from culture, history and story. In a separate interview (Youtube below) Viola and Perov explain that they are looking to express universal aspects of suffering and salvation, ‘Everyone here [at St. Paul’s] has something they need to resolve…lots of different cultures do this in lots of different ways, but under all that, in the core of the human being, there’s this inner place that’s going to save you, to teach you something.’ Thus the four elements depicted represent overwhelming forces, and the video shows human beings having gone through a process of ‘resignation, dignity and letting go…conquering those elements.’

Here is the great conundrum of contemporary modernism. How far is it possible to abstract a universal ‘human core’ from humanity’s cultural, religious and historical particularities? Arguably, this has been the goal of abstract art and sculpture since Kandinsky’s first abstract paintings 100 years ago. Today, Kandinsky’s early works are very clearly of a particular time and place. Abstract art, even Malevich’s Black Square which is in essence a deeply religious work, is never abstract enough to escape its author’s world. Neither, it might be suggested, are Viola’s videos.

Furthermore, without the very specific flesh and blood of everyday life, art risks evaporating into triviality. Certainly, the worst part of much human suffering is that very often it has no logical cause or rationale (‘Why me?’), no easy story to soften its blow. Perhaps the anonymity of Viola’s figures reflect this. Or perhaps they are so abstracted from real life that it is impossible to identify with them.

In his great poem Byzantium, WB Yeats addresses the same issue. He imagines a beautiful mosaic pavement of flames and leaping dolphins under a great, star-lit Byzantine dome (perhaps not unlike St. Paul’s). However, the mosaic flames ‘cannot singe a sleeve’, the mosaic dolphins cannot portray the ‘mire and blood’ of a real dolphin, and at the end of the poem ‘the dolphin-torn, the gong-tormented sea’ sweeps back in, in a flood of images that submerge the lot. Similarly, with this beautiful video piece: the strangely impassive figures, so perfectly shot amid the crafted fire and water, cry out for mire and blood; and the very cleanness of the high definition video installation (especially for those used to tangible three-dimensional sculpture) has no power to touch our bodies, let alone our souls. Finally, the carnal specificity at the heart of Christianity is absent from this anaemic yet beautiful piece.

Main image: Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London (photo: Peter Mallet)

Aurora Corio