Review | Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at Royal Academy

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In a contemporary art world dominated by video art (as shown by the 2018 Turner PrizeBill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth presents a new approach to the medium, through the utilisation of drawings by the High Renaissance master Michelangelo Buonarroti.

Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth displays the large scale video works of Bill Viola alongside the theological and ethereal drawings of Michelangelo. The possibility of rebirth serves as a principle driving force for the exhibition, alongside the exploration of self in the face of adversity and death. It is the first exhibition in the history of the Royal Academy to utilise video works as its principle driving force. The display does not suggest that Viola is directly influenced by the drawings of Michelangelo, instead it attempts to create a dialogue between the two artists and their treatment of questions central to collective human experience. The catalyst for the exhibition was Bill Viola’s visit in 2006 to the Royal Collection, where he observed many of the drawings exhibited in the show. In conversation with Martin Clayton, the collection’s Head of Prints and Drawings, they began to conceive of the display.

Through the presentation of Michelangelo’s drawings, the exhibition moves away from the grandeur of his more infamous large-scale works, reconciling the spirituality at the core of his artistic outlook. There is a sublime beauty both to the drawings and to the way in which they explore the notions of life and death. Created in private toward the end of Michelangelo’s long life, the pieces appear as introspective reflections on his own mortality. These reflections (understandably) often concern faith, and often utilise religious symbolism to explore a wider analysis of the human condition. It is through focusing on this awareness of mortality that the works of Michelangelo and tied to the inherently personal video artworks of Bill Viola.

Upon entering the exhibition, one is immediately introduced to Bill Viola’s The Messenger. Created in 1996, the piece appears as a clear symbol of death and rebirth. The nude figure floats within the void, abstracted by the water which surrounds them, drifting to the surface to catch a breath before descending once more, dissolving into the black abyss. The installation also speaks to the sublime experience of the elements, and the way in which inevitability of mortality demonstrates a re-merger with nature. Playing on a loop, the film conveys the eternal return of collective human experience and questions of uncertainty. To contrast such a work with that of Michelangelo, one may turn to the mobilisation of faith, and the way in which it can aid human experience in the reconciliation of the unknowable in the face of death. The possibility of an afterlife is a central element of both artist’s work. As Viola claims, “It is the awareness of our own mortality that defines the nature of human beings”. Michelangelo’s drawings appear as sensitive reflections on the the question of mortality, while at the same time appearing to distance themselves from direct engagement with the imagery of birth and death, through the utilisation of the religious symbol. By contrast, Viola’s Nantes Triptych, of 1992 appears a raw reflection on cycle of human life. Central to the piece is a figure floating in half-light. On one side, the one observes woman giving birth, and on the other Viola’s mother on her deathbed. The imagery is stark and deeply emotive, a documentary of truth in consideration of existence. Shown alongside this work is The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist by Michelangelo. Known as Taddei Tondo, the sculpture is said to present the Madonna’s realisation of her child’s own mortality. By showing the work of Bill Viola alongside such an image, the viewer is reminded of death as central to the human condition.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, c.1504-05 Marble relief, 107 x 107 x 22 cm Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bequeathed by Sir George Beaumont, 1830 © Royal Academy of Arts, London; Photographer: Prudence Cuming Associates Limited

Viola’s piece Man Searching for Immortality, Woman Searching for Eternity is a clear presentation of humanity’s engagement with self analysis. Displaying two nude figures, exploring their own bodies through the use of torchlight, the projection brings to mind questions the physical/spiritual distinction. The two figures are unable to detach themselves from their own physicality, searching for meaning in their own existence. Viola’s work often breaks from the confines of the single visual plane, to which video is usually constricted. Most notably, Reflecting Pool constitutes a floating image, projected onto mesh which can be viewed from both sides. What is perhaps so interesting about this presentation of the work, is that it distances itself from a grounding in reality, moving away from physicality, presenting instead a more dream-like state.

“I am interested not so much in the image whose source lies in the phenomenal world, but rather the image as artefact, or result, or imprint, or even wholly determined by some inner realisation” – Bill Viola

It is important to question whether the artworks succeed in the visualisation of the inner self. Nantes Triptych is possibly the most effective of Viola’s works, while others appear as spectacles, often vacuous, especially in relation to the highly sensitive, passionate drawings by Michelangelo. Works such as Fire Woman fill the room with theatricality and scale, but often fall flat in in terms of symbolic depth. The presentation of the pieces is beautiful, at times captivating, but they pale in comparison to such personal allegories of love and life.

Many of the Michelangelo works shown were given as gifts to friends and family, or kept as personal reflections, cathartic explorations of self. The conversation between the works of Viola and those of Michelangelo peaks in the second room of the exhibition, fading toward the latter rooms. The monumental Tristan’s Ascension creates quite a sensationalist parade, but it fundamentally fails to speak to the the notions of life, death, and rebirth which define the exhibition itself. It is in these moments that the very curatorial premise of the show begins to fragment, calling one to question the intention behind the adjoining of such different artists. The largest piece in the exhibition, Five Angels for the Millenium is captivating if only for its sheer scale, filling the cavernous room in which it is placed with a visceral reflection of the elements. There is an inherent superficiality to many of the pieces, which juxtaposes the emotive depth one finds in Michelangelo’s drawings.

It is difficult, when breaking new ground in artistic thematisation, to avoid a clash between artistic expression. Although there a number of points in Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth in which the artworks appear in productive conversation as to elements of human experience, overall the show does not quite succeed in its creation of an effective dialogue. Viola’s works are, at times, spectacular installation experiences, that play upon basic emotional responses, but they do not stand up to the masterworks of Michelangelo, crumbling in the face of true passionate expression. The curatorial decision to contrast the two artists however, and the attempt to find common ground in works some 500 years apart, represents in itself a level of imagination and creativity from the Royal Academy which should be applauded. 

Words by Charlie Dixon.

Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth is on from the 26th January to the 31st March. For more information, please visit the Royal Academy.


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