Art has, at various times, stirred all kinds of emotions in me: joy, annoyance, gloom, elation and despair, to name a few. So it was good to find the work of Bill Viola adding a new response to my critical armoury, namely the longing for a fast-forward button.
The first thing you notice about Viola's video and DVD pieces is that they are slow; very, very slow. In fact, slowness has become something of Viola's stock-in-trade. Were you to watch all 14 of the works in his new show at the National Gallery end-to-end, you would have had a little glimpse of eternity.
One piece alone - Anima, a triptych which intentionally calls to mind those trios of Christ and the two Marys - is 82 minutes long, during which time the expressions of the work's three subjects change at a pace so glacial as to be invisible. That's it. The accompanying catalogue suggests that the best way of looking at Anima is to keep taking breaks from the work, so that something will have changed by the time you get back. It's an unusual piece of curatorial advice, but not necessarily the worse for that.
Of course, there's a point to all this slowness; or rather, two points. The first is that it suggests a kinship between Viola's devotional artworks and those on the walls of the Sainsbury Wing's upper floor, which do not move at all. This likeness in its turn is meant to infer timelessness, that eternal impulse which is faith. Things don't move on much in Viola's work because things don't move on much in devotion. Instead of subscribing to a post-19th century belief in novelty, Viola's art finds its point in sameness: like Orthodox icon painters, the point is not to change but not to change. Viola's unmoving diptychs and triptychs and predella panels look like those of Piero and Fra Angelico (on both of whom they draw) because they are, in the artist's mind at least, coming from the same place. Now they are hanging there as well.
A second (and contrary) point to Viola's slowness, though, is that it is inappropriate. We expect to see all kinds of things on LCDs: Pokemon games, spreadsheets, screensavers. What we do not expect to see on them are entombments. To underline this oddness, Viola's video screens break the rules in being more-or-less static as well. The point about moving pictures is that they should move and his don't, or not very much.
A work like Dolorosa confounds us by hinting at one thing and delivering another. The hinge between its panels is the one that holds together the two halves of a laptop and the tonal range of the work's twin images is drawn from the stock palette of computer imaging. But that same hinge, seen in the Sainsbury Wing, can also be the archaic one which joins the panels of a Quattrocento travelling altarpiece, while an LCD screen, turned on its side, conforms handily to the standard portrait format of classical art. …