A hope to die for
Bill Viola: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)
Bill Viola: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014, colour, high-definition video polygraph on four vertical plasma displays, 140 x 338 x 10 cm, duration 7:15 minutes.
In this new work by Bill Viola, installed in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, four martyrs are shown next to each other, each isolated in their own video. They emerge from darkness, in bondage. They are then subjected to intense assault by one of the four elements of the world. A man is buried in earth; a woman hangs by her wrists as she is buffeted by the wind; a man seated in a chair is surrounded by flames; a fourth figure is suspended upside-down by the feet as he is drenched with water. Curiously, amid this battering, the four individuals remain passive: they seem to feel no pain or fear. The assault grows increasingly violent before abating, at which point each martyr experiences a form of release and enlightenment, looking up – or taken up – into a light that shines from above.
Looking at art can be a tricky business. It is, as Seerveld says, intrinsically allusive, not clear-cut. Decoding, understanding and applying it is not straightforward. And this is certainly the case with Christians looking at the work of Bill Viola.
His work has become popular in Christian arenas such as St Paul’s, because of his refreshing engagement with spirituality. Unlike so many contemporary artists he believes in the reality of the spiritual realm and explores it with serious contemplative works, free of cynicism and gamesmanship.
Nevertheless, although in his spiritual search he naturally borrows a lot from Christian imagery, Viola, as he says himself, is influenced as much by Zen Buddhism as by anything else. The spirit here is much more New Age mysticism than the Gospel of the Lord Jesus and we have to pick our way carefully as we explore the work.
In what sense are these figures martyrs? The word ‘martyr’ means a witness. The cathedral’s blurb suggests that the viewer is the ‘witness’ to the suffering of others, but this misses the point of martyrdom completely. In martyrdom, it is the witness who dies. And they die specifically for the truth they hold. They were so sure of the truth that they refuse to deny it – or him – even to the point of death.
The Cathedral’s assertion is perhaps a response to the fact that in Viola’s work there is no apparent content or higher purpose to the suffering, no suggested truth that the martyrs are upholding. They are presented as innocent victims: each is either bare-chested or wearing white. Their martyrdom then becomes a matter of endurance, faced with stoicism. Their lack of emotion suggests a kind of meditative intensity by which they manage to block out their physical sensations.
In this same key, the finale suggests that the answer to suffering is to escape ‘upwards’ into another realm of unspecified enlightenment. The first three videos end with the martyrs’ eyes closed, suggesting not death, but translation into another realm. The fourth is literally taken ‘up’ and out of the picture.
Viola’s work is attractive and uplifting. It embodies what Ronald Bernier in his new book The Unspeakable Art of Bill Viola, A Visual Theology calls ‘the poetics of hope’. It expresses the confidence that human beings are so much more than materialism, consumerism or evolution would allow, more than hopeless stooges subject to meaningless chance, suffering and an endless dark night of death.
In earlier works Viola focused on the depths of human emotion. Here he seems to celebrate qualities of fortitude and conviction, courage under attack, the heroic willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause, and hope in the midst of suffering and death. But if Martyrs were our best response to human suffering – stoic endurance in the hope of a final escape into the ether – it would be tragic indeed.
But there is a solid base for understanding suffering and genuine enlightenment – and it is Jesus, the Creator and Redeemer of the world. Through Jesus we know the hard truth that suffering has come into this world because of our own rebellion against our Creator. But in him we also know that suffering is not without meaning or purpose. Christ himself suffered and died for a good purpose and to great effect. And in the profound wisdom of God our own suffering can be the path to his blessing (Matthew 5:10-12; 1 Peter 3:14). In Christ we have a solid hope for the outcome of suffering and death: not an ‘escape’ into a disembodied alternative realm, but a resurrection into this world as we know it should be – this world freed from sin and from any further threat of suffering and death, to be enjoyed with eyes open.
Jesus: now there is the truth to die for. May Bill Viola find him soon.
[First published by ArtWay, 3 August 2014. To subscribe to the weekly ArtWay visual meditations, or view other articles in the series, go to www.artway.eu.]
Bill Viola: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014 (St Paul's Cathedral, London). Photo: Peter Mallet
Bill Viola: Fire Martyr: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014. Colour High-Definition video polyptych on four plasma displays. Executive producer, Kira Perov. Performer: Darrow Igus