Definitely not a show for the feint hearted, London's Royal Academy of Arts pitched together "the divine one" Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475 -1564) and American video viruoso, Bill Viola (1951 - present). The theme, as per the title, explored the each artist's visualisation of their own inner research into Life, Death and Rebirth, and the significance of these within the contexts of religion and spiritual essence.
On entering the exhibition, the visitor first needs to adjust to the total pitch darkness that envelops them on passing the heavy black curtain across the portal to the other side. Sounds are the first stimulus which register with the senses, and one is then drawn along a blackened corridor, and deeper into the experience. THe sound is of water, but muffled as if you were already immersed in it. Then ... a blue light guides you into the first womb like space. Bill Viola, began to experiment with video in the 1970, growing from single-monitor works, to large scale and immersive installations, propelling the medium from the margins of contemporary practice, into the mainstream. Always exploring the technical limits of his chose tool, he also understood that from a philosophical stand-point, the medium can be invested with a mystical and spiritual significance. His work has always been informed by an interest in medieval and Renaissance art, as well as Buddhism, Sufism, and Christian Mysticism, combining contemporary technology with continuing traditions of spiritual and affective art.
In the first encounter, The Messenger (1996), originally exhibited in Durham Cathedral. In a looped video, a naked man submerged deep underwater, very slowly rises to the surface, where he breaks surface and takes in a gigantic lungful of air, before returning to the depths. Implied here is the universal truth of life and death from which there is no escape or alternative endgame. Following on from this exhibit, is the even more disturbing Nantes Triptych, (1992) in which three screens one next to the other, show on one side a woman giving birth, on the other side a close up of Viola's mother a week before she died, and in the middle a figure floating in water, sometimes calmly, at other moments in spasms of turmoil. Life, death and all that happens in between, captured in one extraordinary video installation. Bill Viola it seems has discovered that video not only has 2 dimensions, but also 3D and even a forth dimension, which is a temporal dimension, as revolutionary to image-making as three-dimensional pictorial space was in the Renaissance .
Bill Viola it seems has discovered that video not only has 2 dimensions, but also 3D and even a forth dimension, which is a temporal dimension, as revolutionary to image-making as three-dimensional pictorial space was in the Renaissance .
A detail from Figures Study for the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1530), by Michelangelo Buonarotti, was one of a host of extraordinary works loaned by HM Queen Elizabeth's collection, and supported the avant-guard video work of Viola, by providing both a classical backdrop, and a parallel philosophical consideration of the central paradox to all of our lives, that death and life co-exist.
Michelangelo was deeply christian, but also influenced by the Neoplatonist position, that a divine presence actually exists within all things. At the heart of his art, is the belief that the contemplation of beauty is capable of elevating the souls to a higher plane. His skill as an artist, one of the greatest artists ever in fact, is well attested by the works displayed, which include many drawing made in the final years of his life, and mostly likely as personal meditations on his own impending death. Figures where strong and bold lines become increasingly smudged and imprecise, give notice of the slow fade out which is the eventual fate of us all. As if to underline the fact that we are all living in a state of suspended animation, one of the final exhibits is a room containing vertical screens on each of it's four wall, everyone of which contained a single person, suspended in water. All of different ages and ethnicities, it gave an overwhelming sense of life being little more than a waiting game, book-ended by it's two main events: LIFE & DEATH. As far as REBIRTH is concerned, it really depends on which book of truth you subscribe to.
Once again, it's easy to confirm that immersive experiential happenings are immesely rewarding, provided they are not too crowded by tourists; especially those who cannot moderate the volumes of the voices, or their children.
The pairing of these two artists is curious and extremely Retromodernist in it's intention. In parts it works as a fantastic and well balanced juxtapostion, but in other parts, the profound statements made by Michelangelo inevitably steal the show, as is the case of the crucifixion studies made in Michelangelo's later life, when he is using hard and soft edges within his composition, where the boundaries between Christ and the cross disappear, have a depth and level of personal quest for truth, which are hard to match.
That said, exhibition has provided those who were lucky enough to witness it first hand, exactly the type of stimulation art is supposed to provide. Well done again RA !