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Bill Viola: "Mary" at St Paul's Cathedral

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Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

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Mary. Bill Viola. St Paul's Cathedral, London

 

As we approach the High Altar of St Paul's Cathedral in London, sunlight floods through the two great windows on either side. The glass is neither stained nor tinted, just crystal clear. We walk slowly here, amazed by the pomp and colossal size of Wren's cathedral, perhaps a little disoriented by its resemblance to St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican City with its baldachin, its Solomon's Temple-like columns, its sheer dimensions and its profusion of marble.  But here there is an electricity distinct from that of Rome. Nelson is buried beneath our feet, as is Wellington.  There are flags from old military campaigns,  memorials and, more importantly, there is contemporary art. Staggering present-day pieces that speak to us of current conflicts and originate from all over the world. There is a Virgin Mary in a refugee camp by the graffiti artist CBloxx, two gigantic white crosses by the Indian artist Gerry Judah hanging from the central nave ... Different languages in a powerful crossover between the Baroque and the ultra-contemporary. My companion and I think of Spain. We expect something with a bit more rage to it, something more challenging, something to be overcome. We think of Burgos, Leon, Toledo and others, with their cathedral choir stalls, their altar railings. Bill Viola began working in Gothic churches to reflect their sound, that opaque silence that scales their pillars to the heavens ... 

 

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Mary. Bill Viola. St Paul's Cathedral, London

  

We wander further and pass Henry Moore's sculpture "Mother and Child: Hood" in the apse. A little further and we find ourselves in the North Quire aisle to the left of the High Altar. There, where our cultural references would lead us to expect a Baroque altarpiece with painted, gold-leafed wooden figures, we find instead a nun of quite masculine appearance, cassock, dog collar and boyish haircut. She is pointing at three plasma screens with a remote control. And then begins a fascinating experience for Christians like us, in the year 2016, in an Anglican cathedral rebuilt after the Great Fire of London in 1666. This modern-day triptych lights up to show a shaven-headed, dark-skinned woman of indeterminate race. She wears a saffron-coloured tunic whose colours call to mind the Buddhist monks of Cambodia. Her right breast is bared as she breastfeeds the baby boy in her lap. Behind her, the speeded-up lights of the Los Angeles horizon change from morning pinks, to evening , to nightfall over an extended length of time while she, all slow motion, doesn't take her gaze off ours. The scene is emotionally powerful, wrapped in the mystery between modernity and intemporality, between the most advanced technology and the purity of the miracle of sustaining life by means of warmth and a mother's milk.

  

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Mary. Bill Viola. St Paul's Cathedral, London

 

 

FRAGMENT OF LIFE 

The screen then fragments, much like a pradella of reliefs on a Baroque altar, into a series of other scenes depicting Mary's life. There is the visit to her cousin Elizabeth, arriving alone through meadows and embracing another pregnant woman, dead fish on a riverbank, a weeping deer filmed in black and white, blackberry bushes teeming with thorns. Seven minutes shot from the Zion National Park in Utah to the desert surrounding the Salton Sea in California and places in between.   

The final scene is, however, one of classic beauty. A Michaelangelo-like Pietà with Mary this time light-skinned, in a blue veil, rosy complexioned and holding the marble-like body of her son, just crucified, in her lap. She doesn't cry. She just looks back at us, sorrow-stricken and unable to understand the physical reality before her eyes. She then looks down at her son's body, raises his lifeless hand and kisses it. The scene ends with the screen turning black. 

 

We attempt to think of this level of restraint in any other examples in painting or cinema. We also trawl our literary references til we come up with those comments of Colm Tóibín's on writing his "The Testament of Mary": “I lived in the epicentre of Mary's pain. I would never like to return there." But the gaze of Viola's Mary is unlike anything else. We are too used to the fixed image of paintings and photographs or the moving image of film.  In these recordings, as in all of Viola's works that lack narrative discourse, the slow camera maximises our chances of really seeing and  feeling the sentiment expressed.

  

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Mary. Bill Viola. St Paul's Cathedral, London

 

MARY: HOW THE WORK COME ABOUT


Bill Viola's works can be found in some of the world's greatest museums but this is the first time  in 2,000 years that a sacred moving image, on video, has ever substituted painting or sculpture in a grand temple of Christianity.  

Bill Viola (New York, 1951) took 13 years to conclude these two works for St Paul's. It was in May 2014 that the first video, Martyrs, arrived in the South Quire aisle, to the right of the High Altar, Mary being installed to the left on the 8th of September 2016. Both videos are on permanent loan from the Tate Modern  and his wife, Kira Perov, collaborated on both.

Viola admits to long-term 'artist's block' about the figure of Mary and confesses: "She nearly killed us." The theme of both installations was suggested by the cathedral itself: "Until the middle of the 20th century, there were other paintings in the Quires based on Mary and the martyrs. They intimated to me that it wasn't necessary to repeat those themes but, effectively, they were setting me a challenge given that the fundamental thing about them is - for what reason and for whom would you be willing to lay down your life. And that is a devastating question."    

 

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Martyrs. Detail: Earth, Air, Fire. Bill Viola. St Paul's Cathedral, London

 

Bill Viola believes that there is a universal chain that links human beings: his parents continue to live inside him and he will continue to live inside his son after his death. From a very young age, he has felt drawn to Buddhism and its vision of the world, the idea of eternal rebirth - a principle  rather more complex than the life - death - resurrection cycle of Christianity.

 

In all of Viola's work, silence reigns. It is as if each of the four elements that saturate his characters come straight from the noise in the depths of the universe. The silence in his videos is the equivalent of those areas left deliberately blank by painters, the ones we have to fill in ourselves with our own imaginations or emotions. It is precisely there, in that emptiness, that one finds the greatest of painters, musicians and poets. What Viola aims to do with his videos is to sculpt time: extend it, stretch it, slow it down, wind it in on itself in order to show us all its lines, shapes and ellipses. Somewhat similar to the practice of meditation, fixing the present moment, concentrating one's gaze so as to delve deeper into one's perception of a subject. And channelling the internal question: "What do I see?"

The artist transforms his camera into a second eye to teach us how to look at things the way he believes we should, namely, through introspection and seeing beyond external appearances. He invites us to share in the journey he himself has been on for forty years, one pertaining to three fundamental, metaphysical questions: Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? Not to look for answers per se but simply to confront the question. He sums it up as: "The men of antiquity called them the mysteries. There are no answers to life or death. I think mystery is the most important aspect of my work. That moment when we open a door and close it without knowing where we're going. To be lost is among the most important things."

Viola is a 'painter' who invented a new palette of technological, numerical colours and created moving pictures that adhere to a  new understanding of art.  It is a crossover with the great masters of old - Giotto, Bosch, Pontormo or Goya from whom he takes not just themes but also an aesthetic. Nevertheless, far from being a link that prolongs the chain of art, he explains: "I'm not interested in appropriating these images. Rather, it's a case of penetrating into their interior, bringing them to life, inhabiting them, feeling them breathe. What interests me is their spiritual dimension, not their visual form."

 

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Left: Pietà, Tomaso Masolino da Pinicale (1383-1447). Right: Emergence, Bill Viola (2002)

 

THE APPEARANCE OF ZEN

When Viola was studying at the The Getty Institute in 1998, the painting that he couldn't stop looking at was Dieric Bouts' (1445) Annunciation: "I fell in love with its austerity and zen-like appearance. The Annunciation is one of those unique moments when, through the figures of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, some news is transmitted before words, before language is spoken. The intimate knowledge by which a woman knows she is with child has nothing to do with verbalization. The conversation that is about to be held in this painting is of another dimension. That is its magic - the silence, the stillness ... all of it comes from a very profound place" he says.

But Viola also focuses on the aesthetic language of the classics and transcends it: "In this picture, I would point out the ambiguity of Mary's hands - raised, her palms open and facing each other. One doesn't know if this is in order to receive or to then close as a sign of prayer. The Archangel, however, has his index finger raised. This language of the hands is charged with symbolic meaning. Many of Christ's gestures, for instance joining his thumb and index finger together as a blessing, are also made by Buddhas. In the Hindu tradition, every hand gesture has a very specific meaning." 

 

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Annunciation (1445) Dieric Bouts

 

"I was born at the same time as video." Bill Viola identifies as being of the second generation of artists who use video, a generation that benefits directly from the discoveries of the first. He has experimented with this technique since the 70's when he was a student at the College of Visual and Performing Arts of Siracuse University, New York, one of the first centres to specialise in the technique. It was there that he observed the work of its pioneers and was assistant to Nam June Paik.

In one of his first videos, Reflecting Pool (1977-79), he records a man - himself - divebombing naked into a pool, his body suspended mid-air above the water by the camera, gradually fading into the substance of the image itself while the leaves on the trees in the background and the reflections on the water's surface continue to move. Reflecting Pool is probably based on personal experience. As a child, he fell out of a boat and almost drowned. Then almost unconscious, he now recalls feeling a total completeness and seeing images of extraordinary beauty. Since then, he has never been able to forget the spectacle of sunlight piercing the water while he was sinking in the lake. Neither has he ever been able to portray the incident in a direct way. However, his oeuvre is full of allusions to it, be they subtle and sweet or more violent immersions: births, baptisms, death. For Bill Viola, water represents each of the stages of life and is also the nucleus of his reflections on death.

 

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Martyrs. Detail: Water. Bill Viola. St Paul's Cathedral, London

 

 

A BRIDGE OVER THE THAMES

Staying with the water theme, we leave St Paul's and immediately sense the nearness of both the river Thames and that other "cathedral" - the Tate Modern on the opposite bank, separated from each other, or rather joined, by the Millenium Bridge. It is almost as if Foster, its architect, had stretched its wings to enable communication between the two great bridges of our culture - religion and art. We continue over the bridge and on towards the Tate's Turbine Hall. The single central chimney rises like a counterpoint to the cathedral's dome. Likewise, the perforated dark brick latticework standing out against the glowing inner lights of Herzog & de Meuron's new facade creates a dialogue and complements Wren's solemn white colonnade. We step out into the mildly humid fresh air and onto the bridge again, seagulls flying overhead, all the while remembering the inscription on William Blake's Memorial in the crypt at St Paul's: "Hold infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour".

 

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Millenium Bridge (2002) London (Foster and Partners and Sir Anthony Caro)

 

 (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

   - Bill Viola: "Mary" at St Paul's Cathedral -                                                           - Alejandra de Argos -

 

 

 


 

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