Thursday, September 10, 2015

Looking at Bill Viola's Artwork, Thinking of Giovanni Bellini

An image of Bill Viola's plasma screen video Water Martyr

This is the last weekend to catch an exhibition of 15 contemporary artworks on the riva of the Giudecca beside the church of the Zitelle called, Heartbreak Hotel. Among the artists represented by a single work are Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, and Joana Vasconcelos, whom visitors to the 2013 Venice Biennale will no doubt remember as the creator of Portugal's "floating pavilion" (

It's an interesting show that allows each work enough space to be pondered on its own terms; it's admirably restrained, you might say. Well, except for the show's handout on the works which has the unfortunate tendency to collapse each work into a tidily packaged message we can easily deposit in our shopping cart of experiences. A tendency perhaps in keeping with what the show's brochure describes as the "entrepreneurial spirit" of the artworks' collector and curator: one definition of entrepreneur being, I suppose, one inclined to impose a definite value on everything. 

In any case, one of the most captivating of the pieces on display is video artist Bill Viola's Earth Martyr, Air Martyr, Fire Martyr, Water Martyr (2104), which consists of four tall narrow high-definition plasma screens: one on each of the four walls surrounding a central seating area in its own darkened room, and each one showing a different solitary figure undergoing an ordeal with one of the four elements (though it might be argued that the "air" is actually more "high wind").

Each figure begins (simultaneously) in a subdued state, then is subjected to an encounter with his or her designated element that gradually builds to a peak of intensity. The water martryr, for example, lies curled up sleeping in the bottom of the small screen, before being hauled up by his feet in a deluge. The fire martyr dozes in his chair before the first flames drop quite beautifully from above like burning wax and little by little start to accumulate around his chair. The air martyr, a woman in white, is suspended with thick rope by her wrists mid-screen, her ankles bound by the same kind of rope and tethered to the floor. The earth martyr is huddled at the bottom of the screen among a mound of dirt.

The action in each case is tumultuous, dramatic, yet unfolds in complete silence and somehow, paradoxically, maintains a persistent sense of precisely-rendered tranquility. It was the persistent tranquility rendered with a preternatural clarity that, in spite, of all the movement probably made me think of two of Giovanni Bellini's altarpieces here in Venice: the large one in the church of San Zaccaria and smaller one in the side chapel of I Frari.

Though working in a radically different medium and 500 years later, Viola manages, like Bellini, to create a work that is both beautiful, "a feast for the eyes" as they say, and yet otherworldly, transcendent. Viola may, at least in the fire video, be using a "palette" more evocative of Caravaggio than Bellini, but he manages to distance his figures from the physical, bodily world in a way in which Caravaggio had no interest.

In his great San Zaccaria altarpiece, Bellini is careful to situate his "sacred conversation" between the enthroned Mary and the saints in what appears to be an extension of the church itself: the columns and their gilded capitals in the painting famously reproduce the columns that frame the painting in the church itself. The picture space, in other words, pretends to be an actual side chapel of San Zaccaria.

Yet this illusion of immediacy is broken by how Bellini portrays the figures themselves, whose arrangement, expressions, postures, all serve to remove them from any human world we know. For all the beauty of their brocade and silks, their sphere of existence--unlike that of, say, Veronese's religious figures--is not one we dare think of sullying with our human touch. The richness of Veronese's colors and surfaces is alluring: even his religious paintings are filled with objects of desire.

There's a hieratic quality to Bellini's altarpiece. It may possess a softly glowing precision, like an eerily-clear early morning in Venice after a night of gale-force storminess--but it has little to do with any world we can experience. Its tranquility is transcendent, otherworldly, airless--or at least filled with an atmosphere too refined for human survival.

And that is what I was reminded of while looking at Viola's videos. His four martyrs' apotheoses are highly aestheticized and occur, I'm almost tempted to say, at that contemporary point (common in marketing today) at which the aesthetic becomes conflated with the ascetic.

Viola may have been looking to allude to the religious iconography of Old Masters such as Bellini, but the look of the piece also evokes, at least for me, our own age's high-end commercial class-porn cult of transcendence and spirituality.

It's shiny, to use the title of a piece by Douglas Coupland published this summer as part of e-flux journal's Venice Biennale "Super Community" project (, very shiny. Coupland writes (channeling Andy Warhol via David Lynch): "I love shiny, because the moment you see something shiny, you know there's going to be something rotten or scary nearby..."

But if this has any general validity--and I kind of doubt that it does--it has little to do with Viola's piece in which the "scary" part of martyrdom, the human part, is mostly left out. Just as it is entirely left out of any high-end advertisements for, say, organic cotton yoga clothing or exclusive spiritual retreat travel packages.

Of course martyrdom by fire was certainly not unknown in Venice. Indeed, during Giovanni Bellini's own lifetime he would have possibly seen or certainly heard of those "sodomites" burned alive between the twin columns of the Piazzetta "so that if the body is burned up by fire the flight of their souls is not damned" (from the Archivio Stato di Venezia, quoted in Guido Ruggiero's excellent book, The Boundaries of Eros). And the American Viola himself would probably have had a hard time not hearing of the CIA's extensive program of waterboarding--a kind of water martyrdom, in which death is approached but never achieved, over and over again--during George W. Bush's presidency.

These thoughts, too, occurred to me while watching Viola's piece--though I suspect they aren't "supposed to." They aren't Viola's intention (not that an artist's intention should matter to a viewer), nor are they--I've just found out by doing a web search on the work--the response of most reviewers to the piece. Indeed, thanks to the web search, I've just learned that this particular piece was created specifically for St Paul's Cathedral in London, where it was permanently installed last year. And in at least one other case, I've just discovered, a critic also found himself thinking of torture and advertising ( feeling bad for doing so.

It is not Viola's fault. We are all of us drowning under a deluge of images more overwhelming than the torrent that batters his water martyr.

Bellini depicted the Virgin Mary and saints; Viola is depicting human beings. I guess part of me wonders if the tranquil air that was appropriate in 1500 for the former may, by 2014, be ill-suited and ineluctably corrupted.

In any case, if you are in Venice this weekend--or London at any time--it's worth a look, to see how it strikes you. 

An image of Bill Viola's plasma-screen video Fire Martyr
Diane by Joana Vasconcelos, foreground, with Katharina Frisch's Händler (Dealer) in background
Nick van Woert's Damnatio memoriae
Detail of Damnatio memoriae

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