by Sue Hubbard
It was a cold wet Bank Holiday Monday as I climbed the steps of St Paul's Cathedral and made my way down the right hand aisle to the four screens of Bill Viola's recently installed video, Martyrs, hoping, in the dank greyness, for a little spiritual nurture. I expected the screens to be bigger, more like those of his famous Nantes Triptych where the viewer is engulfed by the processes of birth and death being enacted out in front of them. Originally conceived to be shown in a 17th century chapel in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nantes in 1992, it employs the triptych form, traditionally used in Western art for religious paintings, to represent through the medium of video, Viola's contemporary spiritual iconography. But the individual videos in St. Paul's, each based on the four fundamental elements and encased side by side in a simple metal frame like a modern altar screen, are much smaller, closer to the size of traditional paintings.
Encountering Bill Viola's images within this bulwark of Anglicanism implies a certain ecumenicalism, as though the church no longer minds much whether art works are ‘traditionally' Christian, so long as they are broadly ‘spiritual'. The canon chancellor of St. Paul's, the Reverend Mark Oakley, describes the piece as “not explicitly Christian… but a Christian looking at it will find resonances”. A crucified man hangs upside down by his feet, as water pours over him, in the far right screen. St. Peter was crucified in this way and lived by water. The scene also suggests full baptismal immersion and subsequent redemption as the hanging figure ascends feet-first, arms outstretched like an angel's wings. For non-Christians the image might elicit darker thoughts of water-boarding and torture. It's a work open to interpretation by those of faith and those of no faith, and asks the prescient question: what is worth dying for?
Viola is one of the artists who must be credited with moving video into the mainstream. Three of this year's Turner prize nominees use the form as their chosen medium. But he has his detractors as well as supporters. One critic savagely described The Passions, shown at The National Gallery in London, as “a master of the overblown…tear-jerking hocus-pocus and religiosity” and, it's true, that he does walk a fragile line between the ineffable and the naffly bathetic. Yet the Nantes Triptych, which simultaneously features a woman in labour, a man submerged in water and an image of the artist's dying mother has rarely been bettered as a visual expression of the cycle of life and death, while in Tiny Deaths, made in 1993 and again on show at Tate Modern, ghostly figures emerge in a darkened space, where light and sound bring about potent moments of drama.