Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Divine Light Show; Martyrs, Unveiled Tomorrow, Is the First of Video Artist Bill Viola's Two-Part Permanent Installation in St Paul's Cathedral. It Recalls Torture as Much as Redemption, Says Ben Luke, and It's Breathtaking

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Divine Light Show; Martyrs, Unveiled Tomorrow, Is the First of Video Artist Bill Viola's Two-Part Permanent Installation in St Paul's Cathedral. It Recalls Torture as Much as Redemption, Says Ben Luke, and It's Breathtaking

Article excerpt

Byline: Ben Luke

IT'S no exaggeration to say that video artist Bill Viola's Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), a permanent new commission unveiled tomorrow at St Paul's Cathedral, is the culmination of a life's work.

In 1973, when Viola was 22 and a budding artist fresh out of Syracuse University in New York State, enthused by the new medium of video art, he came to Florence to work at Art/Tapes/22, one of the world's first studios dedicated to this emerging discipline. While in the Tuscan capital, he visited the early Renaissance masterpieces in its churches, such as Masaccio's Holy Trinity, and experienced an epiphany. He saw in these frescoes and panels "a form of installation; a physical, spatial, consuming experience", and identified with the young 14th- and 15th-century artists experimenting with new techniques, in their case with the discovery of perspective. Viola's reading of their synthesis of spirituality and humanist philosophy, illuminating the dialogue between the human soul and divine light, is always evident in his work.

So many of his videos have taken a religious format, the altarpiece being a favourite. His tremendously moving Nantes Triptych (1987), in the Tate collection, features three screens on which videos capture the birth of a child, a man immersed in water and a woman dying on a hospital bed.

And he has long shown his work in holy places: in 1996, he made The Messenger for Durham Cathedral, and in 2007, the three altars of the tiny Oratorio San Gallo in Venice featured his videos on the theme of resurrection. But Martyrs takes it to another level: it's the first of a two-part permanent video installation on the south side of the high altar of one of the great European churches (the north-side installation, to be titled Mary, is planned for next year).

It's apt that Viola and his collaborator Kira Perov, who is also his wife, have chosen for this first part the theme of martyrdom, explored in four sevenminute films, running on a loop, on four screens next to each other. Christian martyrs have long dramatised the walls, chapels, niches and altars of churches. They were the ideal form in which pious patrons and the artists they commissioned could reflect the glory of God: their grisly deaths in the name of Christianity were the ultimate evidence of faith, making them the holiest of intercessors between God and those who prayed to Him.

But while traditional Christian saints can be easily identified by the attributes that usually mark the brutality of their death and torture -- St Catherine with her wheel set with knives, Saint Lawrence with the iron grid on which he was roasted alive -- Viola's martyrs, characteristically, are "more generic", as he puts it. Both the artist and St Paul's recognise that visi-tors to the cathedral are multi-faith, or even non-believers, so the idea is that his protagonists' ordeal can inspire empathy in us all. This reflects Viola's personal world view: he is as interested in Sufism and Buddhism as he is in the more mystical aspects of Christianity. …

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