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An odd combination: ‘Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth’ reviewed

A detail from Figures Study for the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (1530), by Michelangelo

The Renaissance master sits uneasily with a modern artist, says Daisy Dunn

Most of the archers in Michelangelo’s Archers Shooting at a Herm (c 1530) have forgotten their bows. They stretch as if to draw their strings, lean in towards the target, muscles taut, back feet aloft, and miss. Arrows fly through the air and rebound off the base of the statue. A couple of putti kneel at their feet, kindling fire with their breath, while Cupid dozes in the corner. With fiery lust instead of love, an archer is doomed to misfire.

Michelangelo once likened the approach of death to the motion of an arrow through space. “The years of my life’s journey have reached their mark,” he reflected, “like an arrow that has landed on its target.” His optimism about the end and about the power of spiritual love to transcend the flesh is evident in many of his works. No one else depicted the Resurrection with quite as much joy and energy. Christ spins skyward from his tomb, wrists crossed, ankles entwined, streamlined, in a chalk drawing from circa 1532. Even Michelangelo’s studies of the Madonna and Christ Child, with their sorrowful foreshadows of the Pietà, offer a quiet hopefulness.

Hope is harder to find in American artist Bill Viola’s video installations. Twelve, dating from 1977 to 2013, are juxtaposed with 14 drawings and one sculpture by Michelangelo at the Royal Academy’s new show. The idea is that, though Viola is not directly influenced by Michelangelo, a deeper meaning may be found in both artists’ works by viewing them side by side, or rather, on opposite walls. The subtitle of the exhibition, Birth, Death, Rebirth, alludes to themes common to both.

Viola’s Nantes Triptych (1992) consists of three colour video projections, the first showing a woman in labour, the second human movement under water, and the third an elderly woman in a hospital bed breathing by means of tubes. The scenes of birth and death predominate over the water/rebirth film. Any feeling of hope is drowned out by the woman’s labour pains and the dying breaths of what transpires to be the artist’s mother. This is only the second room of the exhibition but already one feels unsettled.

On the opposite wall is Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo (c 1504-5), a magnificent marble sculpture depicting a young St John holding out a goldfinch to the infant Christ, who turns away into his mother’s lap.
The tondo is unfinished on the St John side because, it is suggested, the stone proved too fragile to work any further, but it captures a tender moment in time. I found it difficult to immerse myself fully in that moment with the audio playing out behind me.

Viola comes far closer to representing the beauty of the human passage to the afterlife in his moving video of Tristan’s Ascension (2005) in the final room of the exhibition. The Arthurian knight Tristan, dressed in white, is lifted from his resting place and raised up through what resembles rain or a waterfall. The film is emotive and highly charged and a convincing parallel is made with Michelangelo’s Resurrection drawings.

Such genuine parallels, however, are few, with Viola’s characters emerging often as more doubting than Michelangelo’s, searching their aged naked bodies with torches, for example, in Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity (2013).

Of course, Michelangelo was not always optimistic. He could well imagine what horrors awaited sinners in the Christian and pagan afterlife. The pain he conveyed through exquisite sfumato in his pencil drawing of Tityus being plucked at by a vulture in Hades is matched only by that in the faces he created for the Last Judgment.

If we are to seek an equivalent unease in Viola’s work it can perhaps be found in his haunting incantations of “The one who suggests … the one who confines … the one who abuses … the one who …”, which accompany his Slowly Turning Narrative (1992): a rotating screen, mirrored on one side, displaying flashes of everything from fire to the human heart. A few hours wandering between these gravelly chants and the moans of the Nantes Triptych certainly had my heart palpitating with stress. At the risk of sounding like a snowflake, I also found the lack of anywhere to sit in many of the rooms trying when several of the videos lasted 30 minutes.

I did, however, enjoy Viola’s Reflecting Pool (1977-9), a seven-minute video in which a clothed man approaches a pond, hesitates, then jumps into the air with a loud “Huhp!” The film freezes, showing him suspended over the water, which continues to ripple, as though his body is dripping into it. A reflection appears in the pool of the man walking away, now naked, into a verdant landscape. Now there are two people, wandering as if underwater, their feet stroking its surface, before the pool loses its reflectiveness. It is a clever meditation on rebirth. One can only imagine what Michelangelo would have made of it.

Bill Viola/Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth is at the Royal Academy ( until March 31