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. At the Royal Academy of Arts, London, late showing of ‘Life, Death and Rebirth’, Bill Viola’s poetic visual depictions of the human life cycle were exhibited alongside Michelangelo’s visual confrontations with ephemerality – but how do these artists from different centuries brought into dialogue and how is it relevant to 21st century viewers? Is Bill Viola really worthy of being set alongside the Father of the High Renaissance or is he a mere imposter? Here are some thoughts surrounding the exhibition, champagne glass in hand.
Entering the exhibition, the immersive nature of the experience began immediately as ticket holders enter in various ‘element themed’ costumes as instructed on the event website – apparently holding relevance to the ephemeral themes in both artists’ work. You can’t help but feel a little out of your depth arriving to a crowd of eccentric intellectuals sipping from flutes. Some take the theme to a new level, one woman looking as if she’s walked straight from a live-action remake of Frozen with blue tassels hanging from her petticoat and hair shimmering a turquoise glitter. Me and my friend, both undergraduate students, had been for a few drinks before making our way to the ornate venue and the gin had started to hit us – entertaining flamboyant know-it-alls wasn’t something we were in the mood for. Yet, much to our dismay it appeared that the elitist tone carried through the exhibition into the satellite events.
The grandiosity of the event exudes at the edges as you glance at a programme which boasts an ‘existential disco’ and operatic performances. It’s hard not to think the organisers are consolidating the art world’s reputation for elitist performances. Sitting through the multi-disciplinary performance, After Violence, was something I was simply incapable of. At first we sat mesmerised by the baroque music, synths, drag and lute theatrics which led us into Michelangelo’s sonnets about queer love. However, it soon became clear that the rather extravagant spectacle wasn’t to be misinterpreted as comedy as me and my friend were silenced having chuckled at what we thought was a joke.
There’s something enchanting about the otherworldly theatrics but unfortunately the sensory overload ultimately took from the experience of the art. Despite the clear investment the RA had in the themes of life, death and rebirth, the events almost made a mockery of the main body of art. For this reason, we passed through the evenings additional flourishes humoured at how seriously it took itself and headed straight to the main exhibition.
It is expected that the work exhibited would reflect this focus on natural materiality, however, it soon becomes clear that the exhibition’s focus went far beyond our typical Greek elemental references of water, fire, wind, earth and air. In a secular age of consumerism, this exhibition provided a reflective space which pointed beyond trivial commodification into hefty existential questions of purpose, mortality and what makes us human. We see how Michelangelo and Viola’s work point towards the possibility of re-enchantment in a disenchanted world. The exaggerated nature of the late-night viewing played into this suspension from the day-to-day, promoting meditation.
With Viola, it becomes very clear that part of understanding what’s ‘beyond’ is by looking at our basic understanding of physicality, Five Angels of the Millennium being a prime example of just this. It takes a while for my rather addled mind to adjust to the dark room and work out what is happening in the moving image. After having orientated myself, I saw a figure is shown slowly being immersed in a spray of water with the thunder of force echoing in the room. 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 Dreamersand Tristan’s Ascension which all enter liminal spaces in which time is suspended in a dream-like existence. Viola’s use of water in his work plays a significant role in expressing the artist’s own spiritual concerns by producing ‘a luminous void of unknown dimensions’; one in which the finite body meets an infinite expanse of possibilities found in the cosmos, as highlighted by art historian John Walsh. Whereas these claims appear rather far-fetched the viewing is certainly a transcendent experience which takes you into an almost unconscious state.
For Michelangelo, the use of elements subscribes to a Christian religiosity. He uses fire in Sonnet 62 to describe a burning transcendent power which spiritually purifies and eventual carries the soul to ‘the heavens’ upon death. We immediately see that Michelangelo unites the divine with the mortal through exploring the foundations of ‘creation’ – the elements – referencing Genesis and Revelation simultaneously. However, Michelangelo’s work tends to hold less ambiguity in terms of doctrinal references as The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John and Christ on the Cross with the Virgin and St John (1560-1564) so clearly illustrate as we see the incarnation of Christ’s divinity fully embodied in his human physicality through childhood and suffering. Hence, the artist creates a motif of religious meditation on a deity. For a dis-enchanted world which prizes scientific understanding, the mystic narratives passed through religion often seem illogical and irrelevant, yet, here we are reminded of our own transience and physicality, something which we don’t often stop to fathom.
Viola and Michelangelo’s work both engage with a wider cultural dialogue which was increasingly concerned with wealth and material gain. For Michelangelo this came in the form of Italian trade with other continents during the height of the Renaissance, comparably similar to the American age of consumerism and the technological revolution. The call to move beyond attaining and consuming and enter a reflective, ambiguous space is timeless, hence its essentiality in this exhibition.
It seems appropriate to place such artists next to each other given their status as ‘masters’ of their art; Michelangelo is still crowned one of the fathers of the High Renaissance for artistry, whereas Viola has been branded as being the ‘Rembrandt of the video age’. However, both artists sit on the pillars of high art, dressed in investment from elite institutions such as the Medici popes and Guggenheim Museum. When viewing the huge projected videos of Viola, it is clear that artistic feats on such a scale and with such complex production qualities would be impossible without the use of sophisticated and pricey technology – there is a remarkable contrast to Michelangelo’s modest format of graphite on paper
This ironic source of financial funding massively juxtaposes with their subject matter, knowledge of which is enough for some to dismiss the polemic efforts they make to push the viewer beyond status and worldly wealth. Of course, this is the reason why Viola has been criticised in the past by Nicholas Wroe for being a master of grandiose religiosity and “big-budget […] hocus-pocus”.
Nevertheless, these two artists still offer something enduring to their audiences – a space to reflect on what it means to be human. In both Viola and Michelangelo’s work, birth, life and death are presented as events which meet each other seamlessly. When encountering Viola’s three-metre-tall 1992 work Nantes Triptych, the viewer is confronted with a raw view of human existence: consisting of 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 in pure astonishment and confusion, there were some words said that would make the Pope blush. The other viewers around me seemed to have the same reactions, gasping as they witnessed the ‘miracle of birth’ in such close proximity to a lady taking her last breathes and entering an unknown fate. Two Portuguese tourists stood next to me exchanged thoughts on reincarnation, a view held by Viola which made for very interesting ears dropping. First commissioned by the French Centre National des Arts Plastiques for exhibition in a deconsecrated 17th Century chapel, Viola adapts the ornate carvings and paintings traditionally used for medieval altarpieces to video. This reference directly places the piece in a religious context, adding a spiritual lens to the situations which make us most human. However, identifying as Buddhist, it is clear Viola merely wishes to start a dialogue, not evangelise a Roman Catholic view.
A spiritual interpretation is encouraged by the presence of Michelangelo’s marble relief The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John (Tassei Tondo). Historically, 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 these 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). This has always been a problem for humanity, as highlighted in the relevance Michelangelo’s work has had over the ages, yet, in our modern age we are granted the possibility of immortality through science and technology for the first time in human history. Among other scientists, Yuval Noah Harari has predicted that we may not have to wait too long at all to “solve death”. The philosophical implications of immortality mean it couldn’t be more relevant than today.
All in all, the late-night viewing made for a far from average Saturday evening. Not much can be said for the lofty satellite events apart from that they added a level of ostentatiousness to the event, clothing the art in another level of elitism. Despite the seemingly hollow commercial funding both artists received, both Michelangelo and Viola are truly Masters of their fields and viewing them in such close proximity was truly breath-taking. Viola brings a fresh universality to the time old themes of life, death and rebirth presented in Michelangelo’s drawings and sculpture.