A Review of Bill Viola at the Royal Academy of Arts, London
Though the curators of the RA’s Michelangelo / Bill Viola exhibition, Live Death Rebirth, frame the show as a ‘conversation’, it unavoidably sets the two artists up for conflict – one that Viola seems fated to lose. Clearly aware of this temptation, the show’s Introduction over justifies; ‘it is [their] commonality, rather than a suggestion that Viola is a “modern Michelangelo” that the exhibition illuminates’.
Conflict can be fertile. As both artists’ work repeatedly uncovers, opposition paradoxically binds forces together: creativity within destruction, death wrapped up in new life. However the effect, in this case, is that Viola’s cathedral-sized video installations wear themselves thin by attempting to shout down Michelangelo’s compact sketches of bodies that move, strain, live.
In only one room – one of two galleries where a row of Michelangelos face-off an opposing wall of Violas – did the act of placing two such “radically different” artists alongside each other generate meaning and emotion. The sound of Viola’s Nantes Tryptic filled the gallery with the visceral yelps of a woman giving birth and rumbling, repetitive exhalations of Viola’s mother on a life support machine. This sonic backdrop provided a powerful immediacy to Michelangelo’s depictions of Mother and Child. In The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Christ’s body flops heavily onto his mother’s knee, before the cold sterility of rigor mortis has set in. Like Viola’s mother, Christ is on the verge of departing this life: the lingering warmth of his flesh vanishing. These deaths were made more human and more comprehensible by facing each other.
Unlike many of Viola’s later – glossier – pieces, the Tryptic has a narrative drive and emotive power. Watching a baby’s head breach in graphic proximity had the power to stun: in the darkened room, I lived that birth with the mother.
Of course, a Michelangelo – or any of his contemporaries, no matter how visionary – would never depict the gunge and slime of this moment. Nor could he capture it in such explicit detail or in real-time. These differences – rather than the loose thematic similarities – show the potential in placing these artists in a dialogue: an opportunity to explore how differently concepts of Life and Death operate and create meaning at distinct moments 500 years apart.
Rather than delving into this, the RA repeats the unhelpful idea that these artists are "exploring the same universal themes with works of transcendent beauty and raw emotional power”. The exhibition falls into the trap of shoddy academia: sticking to its blinkered (and authoritative) claims, it ignores the snags which hint that the argument isn’t a perfect fit. These snags are always the interesting bits.
Viola and Michelangelo make very different demands on you as an observer. Viola’s grand, slow videos assert claims on your time. Submitting to these can be rewarding – drips of water become a torrent; a body suspended mid-jump finally plunges into a pool – but it also feels like a commitment, and one that gets harder with increasingly melodramatic, repetitious imagery. It is impossible to sustain the momentum of your investment over nine rooms.
Opposite Viola’s monolithic screens, the sketches feel tiny. You have to peer in. Your eye is free to wander, and decide when to stop – the longer and deeper you look, the more you uncover. Like the splodge of red charcoal in Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John c.1560-1564: its deliberate subtlety is electrically charged. Observers are invited to identify with the human subjects. They bristle with muscular energy: Hercules’ back strains with effort, the child Christ clutches at his mother. Although these are allegorical scenes, they force the observer to place themselves imaginatively in the moment.
Viola’s bodies are held at a distance. His digital medium permits glitches and visual impossibilities: he likes people suspended in underwater comas. We are told that for Viola ‘the camera is like the eye’ and indeed there is something intriguingly voyeuristic in his work. This lack of proximity – or the self-awareness of a post-modern observer – does not make his work less valid, or uninteresting. However, with wall-to-wall screens introduced with grandiose claims, this exhibition does not create space to appreciate what Viola has to offer. Less would have been more.
Underneath, there is a complacency in this show’s curation that is actively troubling. It proposes ‘deep preoccupations with the nature of the human soul’, as if ‘the human soul’, and it’s ‘nature’, are stable and comprehensible to all. This fails to register almost 50 years of cultural theory which has uncovered that lurking behind “universality” is invariably somebody Western, male, and establishment. In reference to a pillar of the Western cannon and American celebrity artist, this sets alarm bells ringing.
For Bill Viola, spirituality and iconography – drawing on Zen Buddhism, Christianity and beyond – are fissures that he can mine: ‘my interest in the various image systems of the cultures of the world involves a search for the image that is not an image’. Like the curators of this show, he elides vast differences in a magpie-like quest for personal curiosity.
Both artists lose out in this pairing – but Bill Viola particularly, whose work feels pompous and flat as presented by sycophantic curation which isn’t prepared to grapple with complexity.
Written by Sophia Tara Compton, a Contributor to Arteviste