Reframing Old Masters; Bill Viola Is a Thoroughly Modern Artist, Working with High-Tech Video Techniques. So What Are His Screens Doing on the Walls of the National Gallery?
Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS
THE National Gallery, shrine of old masters, is staging a revolution.
For the first time its exhibition space, home to Vermeer and Titian, is devoted to a solo show by a living artist - an American and, whisper it, a video artist.
Bill Viola, 52, creates elemental works on large screens or small, thick or wafer-thin, LCD or high-res plasma or huge video projections. His subjects are life, death and God. All in the slowest of motions. A figure plunges into black water, causing an explosion of cascading rivulets and shimmering droplets. Another rises from the swirling deep like a resurrected Christ - "I just thought, why not show the film upside down?"
Viola says, laconically. A third is swallowed by flames. Fire and water, birth and annihilation loop on, all observed minutely, at times shockingly, always prolonged.
Slow is Viola's hallmark. Every image is made mesmerising as the stretched action stretches the mind.
Half a minute of life becomes 10 minutes of video. His ambitions, eloquently expressed, are high-minded: "Life is available on a plate, a pulldown menu of choice, a hundred TV channels which we flick between constantly. We can't make a commitment. We switch jobs, divorce rates are high. Look at St Francis or St Clare living in Assisi in the 13th century.
They lived lives of the utmost seriousness, at the edge of what was possible."
Viola, just arrived in London and busy putting the finishing touches to the 14 works on show, has never wavered. He fell in love with his chosen medium in 1970 when he was studying painting and electronic music at Syracuse University, New York state. Around that time he met his wife, photographer Kira Perov, who acts as his manager and executive producer. "When I started out," he says, "video was new. It definitely didn't count as art. I've grown up with it, and it with me." Early on he filmed the death of his mother, part of a triptych which included a woman bloodily giving birth. Now, he employs actors, preferring the greater control he can achieve, reconciled to the artificiality of staging tears or happiness for his own ends.
Not everyone approves. Brian Sewell, reviewing Viola's 1993 Whitechapel show, described it as vain, monotonous, "inexcusably pretentious" and not nearly as satisfying as inserting his hand "in a muchloved bitch to reverse a puppy pointing in the wrong direction". For those without recourse to veterinary recreation, Viola's intense, majestic, moving icons are charged with often erotic power. Go and watch the crowds observing his Five Angels for the Millennium at Tate Modern to see how his work enthrals. Those who enter grudgingly or in the modern "check it out" spirit may linger for hours.
Cultish, high-tech, waving both at the avant garde and at new ageism, Viola's work sits happily in Bankside.
But at the National Gallery? Its director, Charles Saumarez Smith, insists he is a natural choice. "Viola's work is rooted in the devotional art of the past - some of which will be shown alongside his. To link the cuttingedge of art with the historic masterpieces in the collection is exactly what we should try to do - but all credit should go to my predecessor, Neil MacGregor, whose idea it was".
At the mention of MacGregor's name Viola, a former New Yorker who has adopted the spiritual tempo and mystical leanings of California, springs to animated life. "It was Neil who launched me on this project, which has turned into a series called The Passions [also the show's title]. …