NAPLES, Italy — Most modernist art is essentially secular. To be sure, modernists displayed some interest in theosophical themes, and some abstract painters were concerned with quasi-religious contemplation. But mostly these were marginal concerns. Right now, however, art historians and writers ranging from James Elkins to Joseph Masheck to Joachim Pissarro have shown a great deal of new interest in contemporary sacred art. Bill Viola’s Ritorno alla Vita (Return to life) plays to that concern. Chiesa del Carminiello a Toledo is a relatively small, somewhat dusty church, founded for women who converted to Catholicism. It’s at the south end of the city’s Spanish Quarter, in a working-class neighborhood near the Neapolitan opera house. This project, organized by Vanitas Club, a religious charitable foundation in Italy, and Bill Viola Studio, includes five videos, all with no sound. On the left-side altar in a darkened building are “Earth Martyr” and “Air Martyr”; on the right are “Fire Martyr” and “Water Martyr.” Each is about seven minutes long, and all were made in 2014. Above the high altar is the nine-minute video “Three Women” (2008). Vanitas has organized other exhibitions with sacred themes in Milan and Naples by such varied contemporary artists as Shirin Neshat, Andy Warhol, and Marina Abramovic.
According to the exhibition catalogue, Viola is concerned with universal human experiences — birth, death, the development of consciousness — which are rooted in both Eastern and Western art; the website notes his interest in Zen Buddhism, Islamic Sufism, and Christian mysticism. In “Earth Martyr” a man emerges from burial in the earth, and in “Air Martyr” a woman hangs by her wrists from rope, her body blown around by a strong wind. “Fire Martyr” presents a sleeping seated man who begins to awaken as flames grow tall around him, a scene meant to represent his passage through death into the light; in “Water Martyr” a rope raises the same man by his ankles as the water rages. “Three Women” is the most complex of these narratives of suffering: a mother and her two daughters pass through a wall of water, meant to mark the boundary between life and death, before disappearing back into the mist.
Jusepe de Ribera’s “St. Gennaro Escaping the Furnace Unscathed” (1646), in the Naples Cathedral, depicts the city’s patron saint dressed as a bishop surviving martyrdom. While this scene’s significance is self-evident, Viola doesn’t employ any obvious Catholic iconography with his four martyrs and three women. Nor do the videos depict identifiable saints. Ribera’s painting is an altarpiece in the richly ornamented chapel where the saint’s relics are preserved. In an important Neapolitan ceremony, his blood, which is kept in a vial, liquifies regularly upon demand. By contrast, Viola’s videos could be installed in a secular museum. Exhibiting them in this church seems to treat them as equivalents to the nonsecular paintings that are made for such a setting, but the suffering and transformation presented in these five works are only distantly related to Catholic doctrines.
I admire the ambition of this project, which seeks to raise financial support for the restoration of this church. And I applaud the desire to bring contemporary art to the community. But I don’t believe that Viola’s artworks can contribute in a spiritual way to this goal. The paintings and sculptures in Neapolitan churches are meant to support and strengthen the spiritual lives of believers; representations of St. Gennaro and other saints are intended to reinforce faith. The videos in Ritorno alla Vita call for a fundamentally different response. The exhibition website notes that these videos “exemplify the human capacity to transform and to bear extreme suffering and even death in order to come back to life through action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.” These are important ideals, but they can apply equally to secular and nonsecular contexts.
With the creation of the art museum in the late 18th century, many sacred Old Master paintings were transported to these public institutions, where their religious significance gradually disappeared. These former altarpieces became aesthetic objects. Here, in what amounts to the converse of that process, the installation of essentially secular art videos turns a church into a secular institution. Notwithstanding Viola’s virtuosity and his interest in religious themes, the concerns of the art museum and the church housing sacred images are incommensurable.
Bill Viola: Ritorno alla Vita continues at Chiesa del Carminiello a Toledo (Via Carlo De Cesare 30, Naples, Italy) through January 8. The exhibition was organized by Vanitas Club in collaboration with Bill Viola Studio.