Bill Viola / Michelangelo at Royal Academy of the Arts, London
Written by Virginia Bianchi
Published on 6 March 2019

I spent yesterday morning at the Royal Academy of the Arts in Piccadilly, London, at the exhibition ‘Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, death, rebirth‘, which opened on January 26 and will be on until the end of March.

Michelangelo’s The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1540 © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘Bill Viola / Michelangelo’ is an exhibition where video works from the visual artist Bill Viola are put in conversation with drawings made by Michelangelo. I must say I was quite sceptic, it’s not something common to see works by one of the most famous artists of the world exhibited together not only with contemporary artworks, but with videos! I wasn’t sure about this contrast, but at the same time it was made by such a famous institution that I had to see it, at least. I also started appreciating more and more video art – my love for everything digital is getting stronger – so I decided to give it a chance.

I am actually still struggling in deciding where to start, it is not one of those straightforward exhibition where personal interpretation doesn’t really matter. In this case, the themes explored touch us all, and I suppose that the whole experience depends on how we perceive those particular themes. What I felt during the exhibition and that didn’t fade during the rest of the day is… I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s a sort of peace, simple, natural, but not positive; there is melancholy, there is fear, and death to some extent.

Viola’s Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005 – Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov

(I probably didn’t get the part about rebirth, did I?)

Bill Viola was born in 1951 in New York, and he’s one of the first generation of artists that started working with the digital medium thanks to the introduction of portable and cheap cameras in the 60s. I feel that one of the most important elements of his practice is to understand his view of ‘time’, which he considers one of the central revolutions of image-making – he also compares it to the introduction of perspective in Renaissance art. And time actually has a central role in his videos, which are usually extremely slow-motion scenes representing people in different contexts, often underwater. And it is that same, soft sound of being underwater, that sense of slowness, that follows the visitor through and out of the exhibition, as if time had been stretched. At the same time, his videos are continuously looped, giving a sense of suffocating eternity.

Viola’s art explores different themes, often having philosophical and spiritual significance. He engaged with Renaissance art (he went to Florence to study during his education), with religious mysticism, and he combines contemporary technology with ancient tradition. He seeks to explore life, death, religion. Viola suggested that films could “function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”.

However, while he explores these themes, it is not entirely clear what he wants to say, what his artworks are suggesting the viewer. No doubt that they easily attract the eyes of the audience because of the subjects and the aesthetic; they invite the viewer to stand still and forget the world for a few moments, but then? What is there after this? Does he want to recreate a sort of mystical experience? Does he want to tell a story? Is he sharing his view of the world? Or he actually didn’t want to do any of these things, and just underline the connection between life and death?

Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1992, right, opposite Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo – Photograph: David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts

The Virgin and Child With the Infant St John the Baptist (the Taddei Tondo), c1504-5 by Michelangelo © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Moreover, the conversation between his works and Michelangelo’s is, sometimes, forced, and the dialogue created is not achieved completely. The Nantes Triptych, formed by three different videos representing a woman giving birth, a body floating in water and Viola’s dying mother, is installed in front of Taddei Tondo (1505) by Michelangelo, where the Virgin Mary is comforting baby Jesus, scared at the sight of a goldfinch – symbol of the crucifixion. If from one point of view the two artworks seem to be in a close connection because of the coexistence-of-death/life-theme, on the other there is something unconvincing about it – isn’t it too straightforward? And what is the connection between Viola’s view of daily life – a man floating underwater – and Michelangelo’s?

And the same happens in the other rooms where the artists’ works are installed together, the dialogue is not convincing and appears just thanks to the clues in RA’s information boards on the walls. To me, it seems that, despite the shared themes of spirituality, materiality and life/death, Michelangelo’s works were diminished. It is as if they were reduced to the most appropriate interpretation for this particular exhibition, and for Viola’s video.

At the same time, I liked the show: Viola’s videos need to be experienced on a big screen, with the right light and the right atmosphere, in order for the audience to enter in contact with the artwork itself. I must admit that it does require some time, but it reveals itself to be a poetic experience. Especially when you accept the stillness of the video, and you start realising that you, first of all, have to experience the exhibition itself with slowness and calm in order to fully appreciate it.

But it is also important to notice that, in those rooms where both Michelangelo’s and Viola’s work were installed, the drawings totally eclipsed the videos because of their undeniable beauty.

I mean, it’s Michelangelo.

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