Bill Viola / Michelangelo, RA, review: has there ever been a more preachy, pompous show? 

2
Taking the Michel: Bill Viola's 'Surrender' flanked by two Michelangelo depictions of Christ on the cross
Taking the Michel: Bill Viola's 'Surrender' flanked by two Michelangelo depictions of Christ on the cross Credit: Paul Grover

Art is always a matter of taste. Some visitors, no doubt, will find Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth – the Royal Academy’s first significant exhibition of video art – profoundly moving. If so, I’d like to meet them. Because I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered such a preachy, pompous show. 

We sense what’s coming upon hearing the exhibition’s premise. Thirteen years ago, the New York-born video artist Bill Viola – known for his stately, “sacred” video installations, often featuring angel-like figures or “messengers” tumbling, in slow-motion, through darkened pools of water – visited Windsor Castle, to study the Queen’s Renaissance drawings. 

He was especially eager to see Leonardo’s works on paper, but Martin Clayton, the Royal Collection’s head of prints and drawings (and a scholar whom, in other contexts, I admire), sensed an affinity between his videos and Michelangelo’s masterful presentation drawings, dense with Christian meaning. 

Since then, Clayton has endeavoured to stage an exhibition juxtaposing Viola’s work with Michelangelo’s highly finished drawings, and the result is the Royal Academy’s show, occupying its main galleries. The word “hubris” doesn’t even come close. 

From the off, the exhibition’s vague, defensive wall texts – which drone on like miniature sermons, in the manner of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day – are at pains to point out that the project isn’t meant to cast Viola as a “modern Michelangelo”, but rather to suggest connections between the two, even though they are separated by half a millennium, and have worked in radically different media. Surely, though, only an artist with extreme delusions of grandeur would dare to sanction an exhibition title in which he or she and Michelangelo were given equal billing.

'Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the RA  Credit: Paul Grover

What’s more, the 14 drawings by Michelangelo (including two on loan from the British Museum) – which appear alongside the “Taddei Tondo” (c. 1504-05), a sweet, early relief of the Virgin and Child with St John, which is owned by the RA and happens to be the artist’s only marble in Britain – fail to be integrated into what is effectively a retrospective for Viola, an honorary Academician. 

Thus, the show suffers from a sort of multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, there is a small exhibition of subtle, supremely skilful Renaissance art – which is all well and good, though Michelangelo’s drawings, spot-lit in the galleries’ pitch-black gloom, are never properly contextualised. Then, on the other, there is the Viola retrospective, consisting of 12 large-scale video installations, dating from 1977 to 2013. 

Michelangelo's 'The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John' (c 1504-05), part of 'Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the RA  Credit: Royal Academy of Arts/Prudence Cuming 

The grandeur of the RA’s galleries often seems to encourage artists to veer towards grandiloquence: 2014’s Anselm Kiefer exhibition was a good example, but Viola’s new show is, arguably, the most egregious. I can think of any number of artists I would rather see as the subject of the RA’s first major exhibition of video art. The trouble with Viola is that he is the contemporary artist for people who have little interest in contemporary art. 

Take his reputation for profundity. His videos supposedly pose the “big questions” and offer “spiritual truths” about the fundamentals of human existence and the afterlife. This perhaps explains why he is one of only a handful of contemporary artists, in our godless age, to be commissioned by the Church. Both his high-definition altarpiece, Mary (2016), and Martyrs (2014), a four-screen polyptych, are permanently installed at St Paul’s Cathedral. Some people love his work.

'Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the RA  Credit: Paul Grover

Yet Viola’s reputation is preposterously overblown, because his videos are so consistently earnest, self-important, and banal – offering merely a kind of cod-religious, fortune-cookie spirituality that would not appear out of place in a self-help book. He reminds me of a 19th-century spirit medium.

The opening work is The Messenger (1996), first shown at Durham Cathedral. A submerged, naked man, his eyes closed, floats slowly towards us, before breaking through the water’s surface, gasping for breath, and descending back into the depths.

He seems to be experiencing a revelation, and has something important to tell us – but what? Who knows? I doubt Viola does. Meanwhile, we are distracted, unhelpfully, not only by the actor’s buoyant genitals, but also by memories of the famous cover artwork for Nirvana’s 1991 grunge album Nevermind, with its underwater baby. Bathetically, it turns out, Viola has far more in common with the cheesy, trite visual language of the commercial world than he does with Michelangelo. 

Michelangelo's 'The Lamentation over the Dead Christ' (c 1540), part of 'Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the RA  Credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum

In The Sleep of Reason (1988), which pays homage to (or should that be rips off?) Goya’s well-known etching of a slumbering man beset by imaginary monsters, Viola mocks up a simple, everyday domestic space, in which he places a monitor playing black-and-white footage of a person sleeping. Every few seconds, the peace of the scene is sundered, as random, chaotic images are projected onto the white walls, accompanied by loud, sinister noises. 

All this is meant to be the stuff of the sleeper’s nightmares – an example, as Viola pompously puts it, of his work capturing our “inner state” rather than mirroring the “phenomenal world” – yet the conceit is obvious, the debt to Goya too direct, and the dream-imagery so clichéd (a crashing wave, a barn owl violently flapping its wings, burning buildings) that it would never have passed muster even with the Surrealists, who brought this sort of psychological malarkey into the gallery a century ago.

Slowly Turning Narrative (1992), meanwhile, consists of a large, rotating screen, positioned centrally in a gallery. Various images are projected onto one side, while the other supports a mirror so that, suddenly, viewers are confronted with themselves. 

Bill Viola's 'Fire Woman (2005), part of 'Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the RA Credit: Paul Grover

Yet, this show-the-audience device felt outmoded in the theatre 50 years ago, while combining a reflective surface with ceaselessly flashing lights has the unwelcome effect of evoking a provincial student nightclub. Hardly the setting, then, for spiritual illumination. 

Elsewhere, illumination is the cloddishly literal subject of Man Searching for Immortality / Woman Searching for Eternity (2013) – a title so overweening and up-itself that, when I first read it, I assumed it was a joke. This work features footage of two naked, ageing actors projected onto a pair of 7ft-high slabs of black granite, like enormous, futuristic tombstones, engineered for the digital era. 

Slowly, these solemn wraiths approach us, before brandishing torches, which they proceed to shine around their bodies, scrutinising their skin “for evidence of disease or corruption”. The whole ritual is just so, well, irredeemably silly. 

Bill Viola's 'Nantes Triptych' (2002), part of 'Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth' at the RA  Credit: Kira Perov

Even at his “best”, Viola leaves everything to be desired. Nantes Triptych (1992) consists of three video projections: one of a young woman giving birth, another of an old woman (Viola’s mother) on her deathbed, and a third showing a spectral, clothed figure – underwater again, as usual – offering, I suppose, an allegorical embodiment of the limbo that is the span of a human life, bracketed by birth and death. 

At least, here, we get to see some real footage, even if, in another thudding stroke of overly literal symbolism, the birthing woman, her vagina prominently visible, wears a blue nightgown, to conjure associations with the Virgin Mary, who traditionally, in art, wears an ultramarine robe. The Taddei Tondo, which has precisely none of the raw, life-and-death drama of Viola’s triptych, is displayed opposite; forced to pick an Old Master parallel, Caravaggio would surely be far more apposite.

Undoubtedly, the Nantes Triptych is powerful. But merely reiterating the commonplace observation that birth is “miraculous”, and offering this up as some sort of acute artistic insight – well, frankly, that doesn’t cut it.

Ultimately, there’s a reason why a poorly lit, underwater figure, floating aimlessly, recurs so frequently in the work of Viola, who once almost drowned while on holiday as a child: it is because he, himself, is like a drowning swimmer, doomed perpetually to thrash around in darkness, while the solidity of having something genuinely perceptive and profound to say eludes him.

From Sat until March 31. Details: 020 7300 8090; royalacademy.org.uk