St Paul’s Cathedral
Bill Viola is no stranger to exhibiting within cavernous spaces. The Messenger, commissioned for Durham Cathedral in 1996, for instance, or 2001’s Five Angels for the Millennium – installed in a gigantic disused gasometer in Oberhausen, Germany – beat the path for Martyrs, currently residing in the back-right corner of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. One might justifiably perceive Viola’s almost 45 year-long career to have preoccupied itself with the very dynamic of those two preceding works: a viewer gazing up at the human self at its most elemental (in both senses of the term) amid the echoing massiveness of human contemplation. The interplay between Viola’s trademark themes is here galvanised by Martyrs’ situation within St. Paul’s: a facile tourist attraction for some, a centre of worship for others.
Perhaps most strikingly in the installation is an almost overwhelming sense of balance and harmony. The four figures’ compositional intersection and separation ebbs and flows like a tide as they occupy and vacate different portions of each frame, leading the viewer’s gaze one way or another in a way that, frankly, is nothing short of extraordinary. The use of the four elements becomes a tour of empathic extremes: cascading dirt on one panel, battering wind on another, infernal flame on the third and torrential water on the last suspend the viewer between the extremities of our most basic means of sensing the environment around us, and it is perhaps in that space that the soil is most fertile for cultivating basic meaning and profundity through the distinct narrative of Martyrs, which, as Viola noted: ‘kind of has three parts; one is this image of people being left for dead in some horrible, horrible place, and then something happens inside them – they’re touched by something, and they’re not going to give up – as they realise at that point – and then they start to push.’
A universal theme for sure, but nods toward Biblical or at least liturgical imagery are just perceivable enough to restrict that ever-flaccid ‘interpret what you want’ assessment; the ‘water’ figure’s upside-down suspension alludes cleverly to the inverted crucifixion of St. Peter, the ‘fire’ panel conveys a hellish inferno, the woman in ‘air’ is strung up as if expectant of flogging and the mound of dirt in ‘earth’ lends itself powerfully to the image of a burial mound. ‘We ended up torturing [the actors] quite a bit’ joked Viola’s wife and collaborator Kira Perov, yet torture and execution are key themes here, not least raised from the outset by Martyrs’ title and unavoidably reminiscent of the persecution of first-century Christians. As if a kind of memorial, this theme is narrated within an overarching sense of ordered and ceremonial solemnity, and the result of this is that Martyrs doesn’t kick out against its traditionally religious surroundings, instead allowing itself to work with the breathtaking interior of St. Paul’s.
Placed under a large, plain window and bathed in natural light, Martyrs invariably points the viewer outside. The sequence ends with all figures bathed in light and facing upwards except for the figure in ‘water’, who has long been Rapturously drawn up and out of his frame; out of the window; out of the cathedral. For the uninitiated, Martyrs is a fabulous expression of what Bill Viola can do with the medium of film. If nothing else gets you into a church this year, let it be Bill Viola.