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Bill Viola: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at St Paul’s Cathedral

October 3, 2014

ArtsPerformancevideo | by Maxine Kirsty Sapsford


Bill Viola, Water Martyr, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014, Colour High-Definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, Executive producer, Kira Perov, Performer: John Hay
Bill Viola, Water Martyr, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014, Colour High-Definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, Executive producer, Kira Perov, Performer: John Hay

Video art pioneer Bill Viola has created a religious polyptych with a difference. Forget burnished gold leaf haloes and donor saints; Martyrs – on display at St Paul’s – is made up of four vertical plasma screens within a Foster + Partners carbon steel stand.

 

Bill Viola, Fire Martyr, Martyrs: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, 2014, Colour high-definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, Exectuive Producer: Kira Perov, Performer: Darrow Igus
Bill Viola, Fire Martyr, Martyrs: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, 2014, Colour high-definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, Exectuive Producer: Kira Perov, Performer: Darrow Igus

Four human figures are separately subjected to earth (falling upwards), tempestuous winds, dropping fire and cascading water for seven-and-a-quarter minutes. As the piece starts, the four filmed actors are put on pause before the elements rage.

 

From a distance, the installation – located behind the high altar in the South Quire Aisle – looks highly intriguing. On a quiet day, its dancing flames are visible by queuing tourists at the main west end of the building. But close to, the piece loses some of its impact. Against the scale of the Baroque building it looks, well, a bit small.

 

The actor facing ordeal by fire sits in a chair as incendiary bomb-like drops of fire fall all around him. Remaining impassive throughout, you can’t help making a link to famous pictures of St Paul’s standing defiant in the 1940 Blitz skyline. It’s the stoical faces and unflinching bodies all around that make this piece.

 

Viola’s skill – as in his other video work – is in slowing down movement, which leads to a deepening of our perception. You might not like Martyrs, but you certainly won’t forget it.

 

Bill Viola, Earth Martyr, Martyrs: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, 2014, Colour high-definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, Exectuive Producer: Kira Perov, Performer: Norman Scott
Bill Viola, Earth Martyr, Martyrs: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, 2014, Colour high-definition video polyptych on four plasma displays, Exectuive Producer: Kira Perov, Performer: Norman Scott

Despite the title, Martyrs is not an especially religious piece. Too disturbing for a domestic setting, it would however be quite at home in a regular gallery space. It is this that makes St Paul’s visual arts programme seem pretty bold in its choice of artist; and it is part of its long tradition of engaging other modern artists – such as Henry Moore, Yoko Ono and Antony Gormley.

 

In 2015, the piece will be joined by a second piece by Viola, called Mary. Both gifted to the Tate, they are on long-term loan to St Paul’s and it’s a first for a British church to have this sort of piece displayed on a semi long-term basis.

 

The cathedral is open every day for general admission, standard entrance £16.50, but short, free escorted visits to Martyrs take place at 11.30am and 2.15pm except on Sundays. For more information, visit www.stpauls.co.uk/Bill-Viola.

 

Oliver Rowe

 

Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) 2014
Bill Viola, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014 St Paul’s Cathedral, Photo: Peter Mallet