Magazine article The Spectator

Art: Bill Viola at St Paul's Cathedral

Magazine article The Spectator

Art: Bill Viola at St Paul's Cathedral

Article excerpt

Credit: Rachel Halliburton

Deans are a strange breed. Growing up in the Church of England, I met a wide range, their cultural tastes embracing everything from Chagall to In Bed with Madonna . In 2003, I didn't know what appealed to the then Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, John Moses, but in April of that year it suddenly became crucial. I was proposing that St Paul's commission the artist Bill Viola -- dubbed by some the Rembrandt of the video age -- to create a work for the cathedral. Since Moses had never heard of Viola and I didn't work in the visual-arts world, it seemed a far-fetched proposition.

Yet I was in no doubt that it should happen. The madness had seized me during a road trip in California, not because of substances I had consumed but because of a visit to the Getty in Los Angeles. It was an extraordinary time. The second Gulf War had just started, and as shock jocks barked out anti-Saddam diatribes on the radio, fighter jets occasionally zoomed overhead on practice manoeuvres before heading out to the Middle East. Amid the noise and insanity, it was a relief to escape to the modernist serenity of the Getty Center on a driverless tram that rose with sci-fi slickness up the Santa Monica Mountains.

Bill Viola: The Passions had opened there that January. To this day, I am relieved that I caught the exhibition at the Getty first, rather than at the National Gallery. Whereas the London exhibition worked too hard to contextualise what Viola was doing, at the Getty you could experience the works on their own, mostly in darkened spaces. Viola had spent a long time studying the representation of the extremes of human emotion, specifically in 15th- and 16th-century religious works of art. In the 12 resulting slow-motion videos, actors, arranged as if they were in Renaissance paintings, experienced emotions so powerful that they seemed like small internal earthquakes. Despite their intellectual origin, the best way to experience the videos was as unselfconsciously as possible: to stand back from the explanatory notes and immerse yourself viscerally in what was taking place before your eyes.

My late father, John Halliburton, was a canon of St Paul's Cathedral who had worked diligently to open up the cathedral's collection of paintings and manuscripts to the London art world. So on one level it was an automatic leap to think that Viola should come to St Paul's. But my father could not make the commission. …

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