Bill Viola Michelangelo Life Death Rebirth

This exhibition at the Royal Academy had been praised to the point of excess, so I decided it could not live up to the hype. Video artist? I’ve seen plenty of them, mostly grainy flickering tv images with bad sound. It has always seemed to be a poor format, used by artists with nothing to say. Comparing his work to the Michelangelo seemed like my brother’s passion for The Beatles: nothing could be that good.

But I believe we should all be challenged; the artist in me needs new sights, new experiences, to return to my writing refreshed. Or simply to see shows to understand what reviewers are writing about.

I entered the darkened portal, having been warned that photography was banned. This is often to protect copyright, or sometimes just to prevent the gridlock caused by visitors taking selfies. But within minutes I realised it made sense, as there was no way you could capture the show. You really had to be there. 

I entered a large darkened room with loud, roaring noise drowning what little noise the audience could make. I was disoriented: A wall was covered with a man emerging slowly from beneath the water, taking a deep breath, full of joy, then submerging again. It was simple, but mesmerising, his naked body surrounded by air bubbles.

A room full of the sound of laboured breathing, a long wall taken up by a video triptych of an emaciated old man, like the skeleton tombs in cathedrals, hooked up to medical tubes breathing his last. At times he has a visitor, watching, waiting for the end which must come. The central projection is a series of underwater scenes of men floating, moving, of fabric swirling. I suppose it served to separate the two pieces of high drama, but I didn’t understand this one at all. On the left a woman is in labour, naked from the waist down and supported by her partner. Deep breaths, she strains, midwives loom into view, we see the pain, and then the joy of the new arrival. The baby arrives as the old man dies. Such a powerful, moving  experience; the large audience hushed and mesmerised. Later I read the old man was Viola’s mother. This is brave art.

A small room with square pool surrounded by woodland, dappled shadows. Took me a while to realise the screen is split horizontally so the reflections were out of synch. It was simple, calming, a relief after the previous traumatic piece.

A huge tv suspended in the middle of the room, with lights shining onto and reflected from it. disorienting, but intriguing. Then the screen faces the viewer and we see people – we see ourselves. 

Several of the rooms I did not get at all. Several hanging screens with projections that went through them, some explanations of how Viola and Michelangelo are similar, how Viola has been inspired by the Renaissance master.  Quotes from Viola including the idea that his medium is not tape or film, but time. Yes, he plays with time. He slows it down for us to see the details. I get that.

A room which echoes the first, with a series of people moving underwater in slow motion. They smile at us. We feel welcomed by them, yet they are not there.

A huge room, with lots of noise, of darkened screens – I can’t recall the detail, but it was like being underground, being overwhelmed by the arching space and the noise. I sat down to try to take it all in. I felt like I wanted to talk to someone, but who? How could I know if they were experiencing the same, and by speaking, I would have broken the spell.

Finally, the spectacular endpiece, Fire Woman. A gowned figure silhouetted against a wall of fire; it roars and rages. She stands. Then she falls backwards into a pool. We descend, a male figure in a white gown lies on a bench. It rains, heavier and heavier. He turns to us, in pain? Eventually he lies still, then he rises upwards, out of sight. The rain becomes a downpour, then a torrent, the violence of which is terrifying, and yet… it seems to be falling upwards. But how can this be? The rain eases, then stops. We are left in silence and darkness gazing at an empty bench. Christ’s tomb? I am exhausted and overwhelmed.

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