Wednesday 4 July 2012

Bill Viola, Spirituality and a Baptism 1

Bill Viola, The Transfiguration, 2007 (embedding disabled, click through to YouTube)

1. Prologue

Spirituality is not quite a weasel word but it is good at scurrying about and stealing your spiritual chickens. I don't want to be flip about this but somehow I find myself, if not quite driven, then delicately ushered towards those capacious boxes labelled FLIP and GLIB. It isn't so much that I am embarrassed by the word (though I am a little) as that it tries to do too many things at once.

I fell in love with a missionary / minister's daughter in my early twenties (reader, to save your time, I married her), and somehow this was at a time when everything in me was spiritually ready and alive. I fell in love and was moved by a great many things, including God. God was a form of simplicity, energy and vulnerability that was chiefly evidenced in the Baptist practice of full-immersion baptism. I found it moving as a symbol to see people immersed in water and then brought out again. I didn't think of it quite as a symbol - it wasn't a case of one thing standing for another - it was a drowning out of which people rose. I experienced it as drowning. The connection between sacrifice, crucifixion, redemption and transformation was more poetry than doctrine.

As to the bundle of social, ethical, and moral norms that were undeniably a part of it for most people that seemed to me something else, something coincidental and not quite relevant. I didn't get the puritanism: I was reading the Bible next to William Blake. I was for fidelity and a kind of passionate kindness, but the social manners and expectations of the milieu passed me by. I drew a biro cross on a piece of exercise paper, pinned it to my boarding house bedroom wall, and that was my ikon. It was spiritual in a way. And so it was, in early 1970, that I got baptised by full immersion. I still have the baptismal certificate somewhere near my swimming certificate just in case. I married my equally baptised bride later that summer.

2. Spirituality

By the time I got to read about Bill Viola that phase of life was past. It lingered, first as loss, and second, as an experience that was of some value, perhaps even of permanent value, but one that had run its natural course.

Had I heard of Viola at my own spiritual-in-a-way-time I think I would have been a touch suspicious. Spirituality without responsibility, I might have thought. You get the baptism without the obligations. 'You are faking it, Viola,' I might have said. That might not have been exactly as I would have put it then but it's how I put it now.

I still treat the word spirituality with suspicion. I suspect it - as it is now used - of being  a product of the feel-good ME generation, with its ideal of the fulfilled self. The spiritual would not call it self, but that's because spirituality addressed a meta-self form of being. As a spiritual being you were part of something bigger. Spirituality was the sign you wore in your eyes to assure yourself and others that you were not like others, not materialistic but deep. Nor were you alone in this bigger thing, you were part of a spiritual elite - not that you'd ever use the word elite (ffs!) - that subscribed to intuitive transcendental values while enjoying the benefits of technology as and when you thought it essential, which was most of the time. You were the spiritual equivalent of the champagne socialist. Your heart was in the right place.

You can see now why I might have thought there was something a little weaselly about the spirituality word. Furthermore, you might think I myself am being a little elitist about it all, a little superior, for what right have I to judge of others' spirituality? Reader, you have every right to think that and I wouldn't blame you for abandoning me at this point. The door is open right here, at this very full stop. I only add that my take on Viola isn't as harsh as it might promise to be, and that I will return to the idea of spirituality in less jaundiced fashion when thinking about Bill Viola's art.  But I had to, like, you know, get this off my chest first. Me and the young man under the baptismal water.

1 comment:

Mark Granier said...

Yes, I think nowadays one has to 'treat the word spirituality with suspicion', or scepticism at least. And I think some of the greatest 'spiritual' art/poetry has a strong flavour of doubt. RS Thomas comes to mind. Or one could contrast the two poems called 'Prayer', one the sonnet by George Herbert, the other by Milosz.

I reviewed Viola's 'Messenger' (favourably) for an Irish arts journal perhaps ten years ago:
It was the first video installation I wrote about, and will likely be the last. What strikes firstly me is how hugely similar both works are: single figures being immersed/drenched/baptised in water, distorted/exaggerated sounds of the process, etc. I liked Messenger, though I now think the religious symbolism heavy-handed; it reminded me of an animated stained glass window.

I still prefer Messenger to this later work, which seems even more self-conscious, especially in the way the figure glances meaningfully at us. I can see the attraction of the water/wings transformation (also a 'political' allusion to water-boarding perhaps). I can't comment on the sincerity of another's beliefs, which may, for all I know, be strongly held. Being an agnostic (in the Martin Amis mould, as in merely acknowledging my immense cosmic ignorance), I am always curious to encounter anyone who can enlighten me as to why I, or anyone, should contemplate the possibility of some form of numinous reality. But yet more holy H2O, another Christ, angel, baptism, etc. Yes, alas, too easy, too 'meaningful' and overstated, to say the least.