LONDON — At first glance, Bill Viola and Michelangelo seem to have little in common. Born a few centuries apart, one is a pioneer of video art who is influenced by ancient religions, the other is a Renaissance master and a devout Catholic. The contrasts could not be sharper, yet Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth at the Royal Academy of Arts faces the challenges of highlighting their shared preoccupations with grand themes.
The two artists meet in the exhibition’s second gallery, which houses Viola’s three-video installation, Nantes Triptych (1992). From left to right, it portrays a woman giving birth, a body floating in the water, and the artist’s mother on her deathbed. It’s one of Viola’s best works in the show, lacking the technical manipulation of other video works.
Grouped with the Nantes Triptych are works by Michelangelo depicting the Virgin Mary and the child, including drawings and one sculpture, “Taddeo Tondi” (c. 1504–05). The subjects’ awareness of their own mortality is reflected in their intertwining postures: the mother embraces her son as if she was trying to protect him from the inevitable death. Whether made with chalk or chisel, Michelangelo’s artworks mediate between the physical and the metaphysical realms. Viola’s videos may address similar issues, but the groaning and heavy breathing coming from the video installation certainly does not seem in dialogue with the Renaissance masterpieces — nor does it enhance them.
Viola’s works present themselves in the best light when they are unaccompanied by the genius of Michelangelo. His innovative approach and the breadth of his practice are reflected in the creative presentation of the works in the exhibition. The modes of display range from rotating glass installations to projections on transparent fabrics and individual rooms. “The Sleep of Reason” (1988) is in one such space. A staged domestic interior, it contains a wooden chest, a lamp, flowers, and a TV screening a looped video of a woman sleeping. By interspersing her sleep with explosions of images and sounds, the artist explores the fascinating world of dreams and the subconscious.
In comparison, Viola’s widely acclaimed architectural-scale videos are the most pompous and boring works in the exhibition. As I view “Five Angels for the Millennium” (2001), I struggle to make sense of what’s in front of my eyes. The enormous projections show figures plunging into and emerging from the water, but I cannot identify which angels are shown on which screen, nor am I overwhelmed by this spectacle of slow motion and clever editing. Unlike the previous works, which offer intimate experiences, those ones leave me feeling nothing.
Among the show’s highlights are Michelangelo’s “presentation” drawings, which he prepared as gifts for his close friends, principally for the object of his affection, Tommaso Cavalieri. In “Three Labours of Hercules” (c. 1530), in which the protagonist fights mythological creatures, the artist’s extraordinary craft emanates from the paper. The human figure is treated sculpturally through defined contours of his musculature; at the same time, the softness of the rendering and the undulating shapes surrounding the body accentuate its fragility. Through his exquisite skill, Michelangelo acknowledges the human body as more than just the earthly flesh, but a vessel for an eternal soul.
Shown alongside the mythological drawings is Viola’s “Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity”(2013), a two-channel video piece of an elderly man and woman approaching the viewer, as if intending to escape the digital screen. They stop and slowly examine their bodies with torches. Ultimately, all they find is the limited realm of their physical existence. All I find in the work is a literal and one-dimensional way of considering the duality of human beings. While Viola presents the subject matter in an unambiguous manner, Michelangelo approaches it with nuance and grace.
Life, Death, Rebirth is the first major video art exhibition at the Royal Academy, and like all firsts, it presents challenges. While Michelangelo’s sketches are, like human existence, full of contradictions — sculptural and painterly, evocative and subtle — Viola’s work relies primarily on an empty spectacle of floating bodies and water in slow motion. No matter their scale, the videos fail to engage the audience in the same way as the timeless Renaissance works. The exhibition would have put Viola’s works in a more favorable light were they not juxtaposed with Michelangelo. Certainly, the show materializes grand ambitions, as it presents two grand artists and discusses grand themes. Unfortunately for the pairing, sometimes moderation is the key.
Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London UK) through March 31.