Bill Viola & Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth

Royal Academy of Arts – March 2019

Left: The Risen Christ, c.1532-3 Michelangelo Buonarroti

Right: Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005 Bill Viola

Whoever is born arrives at death through time’s swift passage; the sun leaves nothing alive. What is sweet and what brings pain, man’s thoughts and words, all disappear; and our ancient lineages are as shadows to the sun, smoke to the wind. Like you, we were men, happy and sad, as you are; but now we are, as you see, dust in the sun, deprived of life. Everything arrives at death. Once our eyes were fully formed, shining in both sockets; now they are empty, horrid and black: such is the work of time.

– Michelangelo, c.1520

From an exhibition I appreciated five media art pieces that have one title, ‘Five Angels of the Millennium.’ In the five pieces, the light and waves reflected in the water were all shown in slow motion, and questions when I was left in a dark room with no images or videos. However, over time, a figure of a person jumping into water was illuminated. The motions of the figure were reversed and directed, and a loud explosion-like sound burst out. Through the message of dichotomy, the work seemed to be able to provide various interpretations and stories to the audience.

Another work that gave me a deep inspiration was <Prayer at Night>: a video of a woman standing in front of a podium full of candles and a man with wood fire in between a camera and another camera, continuing to walk and eventually stepping on the fire. This work is based on the performance of opera Tristan and Isolde, and by showing the opposing elements of men/women, candle/firewood, pause/movement, darkness/light on two screens, the artist expressed his own direction and meaning of work. Another impressive work named after a Greek etymology – Martyr – represented the savior who is called ‘witness’ or the Messiah, who sacrifices to save everyone. The artist through this short clip tried to express the human ability to overcome pain, hardship, and even death through actions, determination, persistence, perseverance, and sacrifice. Such deep philosophical motives behind the artist’s work impressed me and lighted up my interest in work that reflects upon our life and its meaning behind it.

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