Friday, 6 July 2012

Bill Viola and Spirituality 2

A still from Visitation, Bill Viola 2008

Just too tired to write this last night so am picking it up now.

I began it because we have now seen three of the five Viola 'Submerged-Spaces' in Norwich and might yet go to see the other two. The first, Visitation, was in The Crypt of Carnary Chapel of Norwich School. A 2010 show of it at St Louis Art Museum describes it like this:
The 12-minute video, which is shown vertically on a 64-plasma screen with stereo sound, was created out of additional material from Viola’s 2007 Venice Biennale series “Ocean without a Shore”.

It features two women approaching the viewer in grainy black and white, breaching a wall of falling water (representing the threshold between life and death), and emerging in high-definition colour before disappearing back through the water screen. Viola describes his primary inspirations for Visitation as the Sufi poet and mystic Ibn Arabi, the poem “The Dead are not Dead” by the African poet and storyteller Birago Diop, and the experience of being present at the deaths of his mother and father in the 1990s.
And adds:
Viola says that, for him, “Life experiences like these, plus the inspiration imparted by artists and seekers of many traditions, living and dead, form the core of my ­artistic practice.” The titles of Viola’s works are carefully ­chosen and play a deliberate role in the meaning of the work.

The Carnary Chapel was built in the early 14th century, the crypt below it serving as a charnel house, so it is a peculiarly apt setting for a work that is not only 'spiritual' in intent but directly addresses the Biblical subject where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, meets Elizabeth, pregnant with St John the Baptist, a meeting of which my favourite depiction is, by some miles, the one by Pontormo (below).

Jacopo Pontormo: The Visitation (1532)

In Pontormo, Mary and Elizabeth appear with two maids but the point is they are pregnant, one with the incarnate God and the other with the same incarnate God's prophet. The composition is all flame: it burns and billows before us in an ecstasy of colour and attenuated form.

What we see in Viola are two very thin, ascetic, almost wasted older women. Viola's Visitation is not about celebration of birth but about the experience of death and possibly survival - survival rather than resurrection. Their faces speak of warmth, loss and a new found ecstasy. The women are not exactly acting. We too might look like that if we had to cross a wall of water.

I did find it very moving and sat through it a second time. It brought back feelings remembered from my first encounter with full-immersion baptism, which is about death and resurrection. Men, women, old and young, are lowered into the water and come up dripping, much like the two women who pass through the vertical wall of water in Viola. The two women in the Viola are almost genderless in appearance. They are companions or friends. Their situation might refer to Elizabeth and Mary in old age but that may be just an analogy of some sort. The Biblical Mary, it was believed, never died in the normal sense but was elevated into heaven while alive, that subject being sometimes known as The Dormition of the Virgin. Dormition is survival. Maybe, in Viola's work, we are witnessing not the death but the dormition of the two female figures.

I found it moving for the reasons given in my previous post on the subject. The sense of drowning, or in this case of what Larkin, in his poem Water called 'a furious devout drench' does seem to constitute a constant part of the religious imagination. Maybe we feel as we do about it because, in a subliminal sensory way, it serves as a re-enactment of the process of birth, the breaking of the waters. There were times when Viola's women did look like two withered babies emerging from the womb.

We are moved by birth and we are moved by death. Why would we not be moved?

I entered the Crypt in a mood of some residual resistance for reasons also described in my earlier post. I came armed but my defences - for a while at least - were simply washed away in the flood.

In a third post tomorrow I want to think further about the relation between the genuine and the spurious, or rather of our sense of the relationship as it affects us. What is the nature of that flood and how far do we want to be washed away but it. What does it mean to be washed away? To be drowned?

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