Bill Viola / Michelangelo - Life Birth Rebirth at the RA ★★

Bill Viola / Michelangelo - Life Birth Rebirth at the RA ★★

This immersive video exhibition brings together the work of American artist Bill Viola and the captivating and delicate drawings of the great renaissance artist Michelangelo. Bill Viola has used his work to explore cultures and the core human concern of life and death and our journey between them. This exhibition found its roots at Windsor Castle in 2006 when Viola saw the delicate drawings of Michelangelo in an exhibition of the Royal Collection. While famous for his David and the Sistine Chapel, the body, its age and its contrition to reveal the agony of the sole inhabited by it is a key theme evident through out Michelangelo’s work. This exhibition brings the works of these two artists together to explore their related themes of life, death and birth and how each artist chooses to explore them with a quiet intensity.

This is the first time many of these exquisitely personal, soft and remarkably crafted drawings by Michelangelo have been seen for about a decade. The great shame about them is that they are few and far between, and suffer from being poorly displayed as a result of the other wider failings in the way the exhibition is presented given the demands of, and scale of, the video installations.

Viola’s work is both large in scale and idea. Slow single shots of nature and individuals exploring life, with all audio, except the one key sound he wants to promote, stripped out. One piece is three simultaneous films charting life, starting with the full frontal birth of a child and its first cries of life, carrying on through to the third piece a lonely man on his hospital death bed dying, with just the sound of his rasping and the ventilator. It’s no surprise that his work has been seen as modern day altarpieces.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ, c. 1540 Black chalk, 28.1 x 26.8 cm The British Museum, London. Exchanged with Colnaghi, 1896. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The sad fact is though, that if you’re not one for video installations this exhibition will do nothing for you, and the way that it’s been organised by the RA will just annoy you. Right from the very start the exhibition disorientates you, you’re thrown into the darkness and then sent round the exhibition in a counter clockwise direction to explore the 12 immense videos and 15 Michelangelos. But the whole thing is difficult to navigate. The RA has given no thought to ushers directing people to areas to watch in order to keep the visitors flowing. The films are so large you’re forced to congregate along the back walls of the rooms making the spaces quickly over crowded. Some visitors sit on the floor to watch and in the darkness become a tripping hazard as you weave in and out of people as you try and move into rooms through blocked entrances where people have just stopped. The RA has given no thought to ushers directing people to areas to watch in order to keep the visitors flowing.

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

Till 31st March at the Royal Academy of Art
Tickets £20 (free for members) including gallery guide.

Featured Image – Bill Viola, Tristanâs Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005, Video/sound installation. Performer: John Hay. Courtesy Bill Viola Studio. Photo: Kira Perov