‘Life, Death and Rebirth’ from the eyes of a tipsy undergraduate.

Dizzy, waved, bevved: whatever your choice of slang , anybody who has done it will know that viewing art under the influence is a whole new experience. From watching a woman in labour to hitting the dance floor of an ‘existential disco’, this was far from your ordinary gallery trip – then again, what’s to be expected of a late viewing of Bill Viola and Michelangelo’s work. Here’s a quick look into my late night viewing of ‘Transcendence’. 

When me and Ellie (a friend of mine on placement in London) found out that my visit collided with this event there was no option but to buy the tickets. World class art, element themed fancy dress and champagne reception – not going would have been foolish. Despite being a fine art student, I couldn’t help but feel a little out of my depth when I arrived to a crowd of eccentric intellectuals sipping from flutes. Some had taken the theme to a new level, one woman looking as if she’d walked straight from a live-action remake of Frozen with blue tassels hanging from her petticoat and hair shimmering a turquoise glitter. As you can tell from the image above, neither me or Ellie took the dress code very seriously – the art on the other hand, we were ready for. We headed straight to the exhibition space where we were met with an immediately immersive experience. Although working centuries apart, Viola and Michelangelo’s work are both deeply concerned with the human condition and its search for spiritual transcendence. Below I’ve written briefly on the topics I found most engaging:

Mortality and the cycle of life

Upon encountering Viola’s three-metre-tall 1992 work Nantes Triptych, I found myself confronted with a raw view of human existence: in front of me were three video panels showing a young woman giving birth, the artist’s elderly mother on her death bed and in between, a clothed man floating suspended in dark, otherworldly water. I couldn’t tell you how I would have responded sober but slurring my words in pure astonishment and confusion, there were some words said that would make the Pope blush.

Having been initially commissioned by the French Centre National des Arts Plastiques for exhibition in a deconsecrated 17th Century chapel, Viola adapts the format traditionally used for medieval altarpieces – painted and carved – to video. This reference directly places the piece in a religious context, adding a spiritual lens to the situations which make us most human. A spiritual interpratation is encouraged by the presence of Michelangelo’s marble relief The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John (Tassei Tondo); this sculpture has been widely recognised as a response to a popular contemporary Tuscan preacher, Bernardino of Siena. As Bernardino said in 1427: ‘I tell you, she saw and knew more all by herself than all the other creatures created by God’. In this relief, Michelangelo presents a mother staring lovingly at her son and nephew whom she knew she would outlive, signalled by the presence of a goldfinch, the bird which is said to have removed the then from Christ’s crown when he was carrying the Cross.

Applying this themes more universally, as human beings we are sometimes painfully aware of our mortality; in Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett reminds us that our mothers gave birth to us “astride the grave”. However, the reality that we will soon come to rest in the cold, numb embrace of the grave stirs fear amongst many, made clear through our historic obsession with maintaining physical health. We constantly search for the showing signs of our flesh’s transience and the effects of a brutal world on our impertinent bodies, as hauntingly illustrated in Viola’s video installation Man Searching for Immortality/ Woman Searching for Eternity (2013). The videos show an elderly man and woman using torches to explore their bodies for evidence of illness. The ignorance of what comes before and after death makes this search anxiety ridden and survival based as the unknown as surely the unknown is more fearful than a physical pain we have already lived enduring our whole lives? What is more daunting concept, to live or to die?

In both Viola and Michelangelo’s work, birth, life and death are presented as almost synonymous events which meet each other seamlessly. Indeed, for the Christian Michelangelo this was taken for granted – for him, death to this life meant rebirth in the next. Viola’s own spiritual inclinations may be less literal but as a viewer I was called to step into a transcendent space, faced with the reality of mortality and possibility of immortality. Is death indeed as Greek poet George Seferis phrased it, the “birth pang of resurrection”?

Existential purpose and spirituality

For me the quest for greater meaning has always been a pressing one, hence my interest in religion and spirituality – however, having started exploring this in the visual field I found it very hard to find contemporary references which are devoid from critiquing religious institutions. show authenticity in their exploration of sanctity. However, it was so very refreshing to enter an exhibition so unapologetically concerned with the notion of spirituality, sanctity and the search for existential purpose, approaching it with earnestness with a pinch of humour.

Unlike Michelangelo, Viola’s upbringing wasn’t particularly religious but had connection with the Episcopalian Church. In his adulthood, he doesn’t prescribe to any particular creed or doctrine but takes an invested interest in many of the world’s religions. Having created one of Europe’s first video art studios in Florence, he frequently visited the cathedrals and he later spent 18 months studying Zen Buddhism from a teacher in Japan. I was interested to find this out because the work that I viewed was clearly concerned with more than Christian theology; it invites the viewer to interpret too much to be prescribed a label in the way we do with Michelangelo’s drawings. Although making clear references to Christendom through his triptych format, Viola creates open ended displays of existential struggle and experiences of the spiritual realm, hence presenting universal questions surround life and death which apply to all faiths and beliefs. In 1997, three years before he began making Five Angels for the Millennium, Viola explained:

I guess the connection ultimately … has to do with an acknowledgement or awareness or recognition that there is something above, beyond, below, beneath what’s in front of our eyes, what our daily life is focused on. There’s another dimension that you just know is there, that can be a source of real knowledge, and the quest for connecting with that and identifying that is the whole impetus for me to cultivate these experiences and to make my work. And, on a larger scale, it is also the driving force behind all religious endeavors. There is an unseen world out there and we are living in it.

Quoted Bill Viola, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of Amercian Art, New York 2000, p.143

I found my understanding of meditation within Buddhism was essential to my understanding of Viola’s work in the exhibition. The purpose of meditation within Zen Buddhism is the close observation of the din and body, standing in an ambivalent space witnessing the ceaseless arising and passing of all thoughts and feelings. Just as the Buddhist assumes the role of voyeur to her own internal process, so the viewer of Viola’s work are invited to observe their own reactions to the work with neutrality. In The Dreamers (2013), we watch videos on loop of seven individuals of varied age, gender and ethnicity, floating in water above a ground of pebbles with shafts of light lighting up the frame. Each individual is in a seemingly liminal state, neither dead nor alive but existing. Some 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens ancestors would have seen their reflection when looking at the surface of the water; the presence of water links with self-reflection and in this case is symbolising introspection. The individuals are depicted in an unconscious, dreamlike state which accesses their inner most psyche. The unconscious state is one in which reality is played back to ourselves and our minds and body process the information fed into us; however, there is little judgement as what is simply is. There is an element of detachment which breeds contentment, as seen in the faces of the figures.

Michelangelo, a devout Roman Catholic throughout his life, used instead the medium of drawing to illustrate his own religious experience. As a man of faith it is clear that as an artist he felt it was his duty being a conduit specially chosen by the creative intelligence behind the universe, the Biblical God, to embody the mysterious power of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ as depicted in the drawing above. Like Viola, he chose art as a form of reflection and meditation; the rough, shifting contours of his Saviour produce a form fo ‘revelation’ of the redemptive power he experienced personally. The artists differ in their approach in that Michelangelo sought not to separate from the sorrow offered by the world but attach to the doctrine he believed was the ultimate answer to the problem of suffering. The videos offers a space for suspended detachment from suffering and desire or indeed any human emotion whereas the drawings present the possibility that the creator, not the creature, must bear the weight fo the world’s suffering.

Raw emotion:

Up until now I am aware I have talked rather extensively about lofty philosophical queries which interest me; although I can only hope my readers share this fascination Ellie certainly didn’t. For her, the psychological side of Michelangelo’s struggling figures and Viola’s lost characters provided more of a talking point. Indeed, both artist’s investigation into the multiplicity of the human experience of consciousness would go very amiss in not paying attention to emotion. We cannot separate the mind from the body as much as we can’t separate the body from the soul.

In the process of studying BA Psychology at the University of Leeds, Ellie found herself enthralled in the fluency of both artist’s physical vocabulary when depicting emotion. The seemingly inexplicable feelings we all experience as individuals are very effectively embodied in the drawings and videos. The first example of this we came across was Viola’s 2001 video diptych Surrender, in which we see two figures reflected in water. The facial expressions of the two subjects disclose suffering and pain – as writer Deborah Levy points out, this may be a reference to the myth of Narcissus (as told by Ovid) in which he finds himself ‘unable to separate himself from the allure of his own reflection.’ However, Viola takes it further than mere introspection as he clarifies it to be more than a one-way conversation. He described them as a transmission of extreme, universal emotions which reach beyond the protagonists themselves. The circumstances causing the individuals to embody such intense states remain unknown, hence room is left for the viewer to empathise with the struggle which may reflect situations in their own lives.

The questions don’t stop there. Surrender: a title which leads us to ask to what the figures are surrendering? I can only speak of my personal interpretation of the piece. So often I feel unable to accept the intensity of my emotions, especially if I find they’re irrationality and uncontrollability overwhelming. These pieces present a surrender to this uncomfortable part of being human. As well as presenting us with the inevitability of our mortality and the mystery of death, Viola also presents the pain experienced through living in these corporeal videos. The invitation is to accept our condition which indeed links to Buddhist philosophy.

Michelangelo’s religiously devotional reflections on the death of Christ depicted in the drawing above are equally as poignant in their expressive, scratchy lines producing grey tones that emphasise the sorrow of the subjects. Had he had access to a video camera himself, it appears he may have used one as the lines bring a sense of movement, contorting the bodies and thus almost bringing the scene into real time. The sorrow depicted on the face of Mary who carries the naked corpse of her dead and humiliated son hit me when I first laid eyes on it. Looking into the background, another thing which struck me was the absolute devastation of the followers as they stare at their dead and seemingly defeated ‘Saviour’. Although aware of the rest of the Biblical Passion, Michelangelo sought to understand and depict the humanity of the people who witnessed the Crucifixion and perhaps even relate to their hopelessness and lack of faith. Regardless of his acceptance of the life, death and resurrection of the Son of Man as truth, we see a painful reality which fails to acknowledge the greater divine plan. Although he looks forward to paradise, there is an acceptance of the suffering experienced in the world.

The four elements

Currently, I’m completing a uni project based on my own experience of ‘transcendence’. So, its complicated and hard to define. However, that’s what has fascinated me most about it. How do I visualise my own ‘spiritual experiences’? Is it even possible to express the intangible? Whether or not it is, I’m trying and so did both Michelangelo and Viola.

For Viola, it becomes very clear that part of understanding what’s ‘beyond’ is by looking at our basic understanding of materiality: the elements. Five Angels of the Millennium is a prime example of just this; as the figure is shown slowly being immersed in a spray of water with the thunder of the force echoing in the room, we are reminded baptismal waters. as Viola himself described, the installation was intended to evoke ‘an enveloping emotional experience like that of a church’. Working with water is hardly a new feature in his work as seen throughout the exhibition in works such as The Messenger, The Reflecting Pool, The Dreamers and Tristan’s Ascension which all enter liminal spaces in which time is suspended in a dream-like existence. Viola links this back to an experience he had as a child of falling into a lake; it was then he realised, floating to the bottom, that the beauty which he experienced looking up to the colourful surface refracting the light at all angles could only be found by looking “…beneath the surface of life”.

The art historian John Walsh has argued that the water in Five Angels for the Millennium plays a significant role in expressing Viola’s spiritual concerns by evoking ‘a luminous void of unknown dimensions where the laws of physics seem suspended and the borders between the infinite cosmos and the finite human body merge’ (J. Paul Getty Museum 2003, p.146).

“There’s more than just the surface of life… the real thing is underneath” -Bill Viola

Going beyond this almost soothing experience of suspension, I was launched into a fierce and purifying light viewing Fire Woman. Still nervous giggling from Nantes Triptych, our state of mind completely switched here as we stood before the darkened silhouette of a woman standing before a wall of flame; after a few minutes she moved forward, opened her arms and fell into her own reflection. This scene holds parallels with the burning imagery of hell or Judgement Day as depicted in the Book of Revelation as ‘[…]the second beast performed great signs to cause even fire from heaven to come down to earth in the presence of people’. There is a vision of fiercely purifying light which roars around the figure who seems to embody the power of the flames in her movements. Michelangelo’s sonnet draws close connection to this burning transcendence referencing the ascension of the soul to ‘the heavens’ which is depicted in Viola’s work:

It is only with fire that a smith can shape iron into
a beautiful and cherished work in accordance
with his concept, and without fire no craftsman
can refine his gold and bring it to the highest
nor can the unique phoenix recover life
unless it first be burned; likewise, if I die by
burning, I hope to rise again to a purer life among
those whom death enriches and time no longer
It is my good fortune that the fire of which I
speak has even now taken hold in me to renew
me, when I am already almost numbered among
the dead.
How can it be, then, if fire by nature ascends
to the heavens, to its proper sphere, and I am
turned to that fire, that it does not carry me upwards
along with it?
—Michelangelo, ‘Sonnet 62’

There is a clear expression of the immaterial through the material use of elements in the drawings of the Renaissance master as well as the contemporary pioneer in video art. For Viola this embraced a childhood experience of ‘reality’ through a luminous encounter with water whereas for Michelangelo it was an expression of his very soul.

4 thoughts on “‘Life, Death and Rebirth’ from the eyes of a tipsy undergraduate.

  1. Absolutely fascinating!

    I think that an intrinsic element of a transcendent experience is found in the loss of our attachment to the structural language which comprises our comprehension of the world as a whole, existentially and ontologically. For example, our experiences become transcendent if we lose ourself, becoming so immersed in an experience that it detaches us from the immediate phenomenology of our surroundings.

    Examples of this would be a drug experience (yage or peyote, for example) or the feeling of divinity one gets when stepping in a mosque or church. In both cases we are so awestruck by the profundity of the experience that our basic everyday understanding of things is insufficient. In this way, the experience elevates us, breaking us from the language which we have trusted to schematise meaning onto the world.

    What, I think, characterises a transcendent experience, is a feeling that ordinary meaning is insufficient; the experience thusly provides us with a new insight to which new meaning pertains congruently to our schematic perspectival understanding of the world in light of new experiential understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for responding!

    I completely agree! I think the transcendent experience is something which can become widely ignored in light of technological development as we have a means of constantly distracting ourselves from the existential craving we all have for divinity, sanctity or even connecting with a mysticism larger than ourselves.

    Art is a fantastic means of engaging in a meditative experience, allowing us to access the spiritual dimension larger than ourselves. The Sublime is certainly a concept I would like to discuss more on the blog in the future as well; how encounters with nature and our environment can lead to individual transcendence.

    Would love to get your feedback on future articles so be sure to follow! 🙂


  3. I’m in awe of the depth and breadth of your thinking! You write with clarity and wit and I look forward to reading more from you 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That means so much 😌 you genuinely made me blush

      Liked by 1 person

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