Conversation or Lecture? A review: Bill Viola / Michelangelo at the Royal Academy

Bill Viola, Nantes Triptych, 1992.

Three-channel colour video triptych, free text 3.2 x 2.3m, 3.2 x 4m, 3.2 x 2.3m, duration 00:29:46. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio.

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Bill Viola / Michelangelo. Life, Death, Rebirth is the recently opened exhibition at the Royal Academy, curated by Martin Clayton. Conceived as a “conversation” between the two artists, the show tackles existential questions about the meaning of life. The approach is from the perspective of two men living some 500 years apart who find in art a means through which they try to give themselves answers. What can possibly go wrong when you’re addressing worries that are common to the whole of humanity?

The issue arises when, in the inevitable comparison that a conversation brings, you place one of the most layered and relevant representatives of Western aesthetics side by side with Bill Viola. The Italian heavyweight’s drawings run parallel to Viola’s video installations that, no matter how much larger, cannot and should not compete with Michelangelo’s works. These are exquisitely produced pieces of his existential frets, in his ever-swirling inner conflict, informed by his deep religiousness, and framed within a larger narrative of Greco-Roman aesthetics and Renaissance Neoplatonism.

Bill Viola’s videos do show the artist’s engagement with long-standing philosophical theories, alas the outcome is not quite there. The “conversation” then naturally turns into a lecture, of which Viola should probably take notes on.

His immersive installations, although undoubtedly sensual and with the potential to hit the right nerve for immediate emotional response, come across as uni-directional and somehow shallow. It’s difficult to not notice the gap when you’re confronted by naked elderly people, pathetically “looking for Eternity” in their own bodies with a tiny torch and Michelangelo’s mythological scenes; the latter being full of strength and elegance and representatives of a couple thousand years of Western cosmology.

Identity, memory, redemption, the meaning of life and death, time and the fate of one’s soul are all central themes in the show. A bit too much on the plate, don’t you think? This can easily turn into an over-ambitious curatorial quest which could leave pivotal aspects of it quite rushed or unresolved. Art is not “higher art” just because it addresses profound human questions. The answers given should keep it up too, you’d expect.

Presenting two sides of an argument is a very direct and easy way of explanation, but in a context where rivalry is intended to be avoided, that imposed Manichaean dualism only further encourages a very unfair comparison that barely favours the New Yorker.

Bill Viola,Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005.
Video/sound installation. Performer: John Hay. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov.

Bill Viola’s works are, in any case, certainly stunning to watch. Having said that, perhaps a different context would have worked much better for him in terms of credibility. His celebrity-ness would have made sure his show becomes a blockbuster without the aid of Mr Buonarroti.

Overall, this is a magnificent opportunity for visitors to see some of the most exquisite drawings by a mature Michelangelo and to engage critically with an institutional show, not often enough widely and constructively criticised.

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