Bill Viola’s “Martyrs”

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The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.

– Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 (Lectionary reading for All Saints)

At the far end of the south choir aisle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, four “martyrs” perform a perpetual sacrifice in a slow-motion passage from suffering to glory. These martyrs are not the painted or sculptured figures of a traditional altarpiece, but two men and two women, recorded on high-definition video, and played back continuously on a polyptych of four adjacent vertical plasma panels, each 55” x 33.”

This stunning work is by Bill Viola, who has long been exploring the interplay of “technology and revelation.”[i] As David Morgan has written, “Viola’s work suggests that the human condition consists of the fact that we are embodied beings yearning, but ill-prepared, for communion with one another; that we suffer pain and loss, that we struggle to transcend our bodies and our suffering by connecting with a larger or inner aspect of reality; and that we die. Bodies, communion, suffering, transcendence, and death collectively constitute a condition, a worldview that the artist seeks to investigate in his work.”[ii]

Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) was installed at St. Paul’s in 2014, and this week I had my first chance to see it. It is 7.5 minutes long, continuously repeated. Mesmerized and deeply moved, I watched it ten times, and each viewing provoked some new thought or feeling.

The figures begin in stasis, undergo an ordeal involving time and motion, and finally come to rest in a perfect stillness: not the anti-life of death or nonbeing, but something implicitly wondrous.

All the figures are facing in our direction. In the first panel, a kneeling man, head bowed to the floor, is almost completely buried beneath a triangular pile of dirt. We only see the top of his head, clutched by his two tense hands. The dirt begins to fly upward in a column, disappearing into whatever is above the frame. He rises to his feet, ever so slowly, as if it is a great struggle against gravity, or stasis. By the time he is upright, the last of the dirt has vanished into the “above,” and he is staring out at us impassively.

In the second panel, a woman in a white shift is suspended by a rope tied to her wrists. Her feet are anchored two feet above the ground by another rope securing her ankles. She is blown by a great wind coming from the left, buffeted back and forth within the constraint of her tethers, at the mercy of a relentless exterior force. After a while, the wind subsides, her suspended body grows still, and she gazes out with an unexpected measure of serenity.

A black man sits in a chair in the next panel, his head tilted to the side and downcast. Then bits of flame begin to drop from above, continuing to burn where they land. More and more flames fall, some leaving trails like shooting stars, until the whole floor, and the chair, are on fire. By this time the man has raised his head to look out at us, but he appears calm and still even as the flames envelop him. He remains in that position as the flames finally relent and die out.

In the last panel, a man is curled up in a fetal position with eyes closed. A rope tied to his angles is suspended from somewhere above the frame. The slack starts to be taken up, pulling his legs upward, and then his entire body, until he is completely upside down like the Hanged Man in the Tarot, or one of those skinned animals dangling in a Dutch genre painting as a secularized image of Christ’s Passion. When a stream of water begins to fall from above, his arms slowly stir, moving into a prayer position, bent 90 degrees at the elbow, then gradually sweeping backward, like a swimmer’s breaststroke, until they are near his side. Meanwhile, his inverted body begins to be pulled upward by the rope, toward the source of the falling water.

All of the figures have been handed over to forces or situations beyond their control. One buried, one bound and buffeted, one burned, and one left for dead. Yet none of them rages or resists. They accept their condition with a calm grounded in something greater than their own survival.

Each of the first three, after gazing out at us for a time, gradually shift their attention to whatever is above them, out of our sight, until their upturned faces glow with the light of eschatalogical radiance. Their faces never become expressive, or call attention to their own personalities; they remain still and quiet, in a condition of “absolute unmixed attention.”[iii]

The fourth figure, the “Hanged Man,” provides the dissonant harmony within this suite of images. He is the one who appeared already dead, his suffering behind him. His eyes, either closed or obscured by the water streaming down his face, are never quite visible. Although his arms eventually make hopeful gestures of prayer or embrace, the rest of his body stays limp, totally given over to the power at the other end of the rope, which pulls him up and out of the frame. The water continues to fall when he is gone.

Unlike the prayerful final images of the other panels, the fourth is fraught with absence. The other martyrs only gaze at the transcendent. The fourth has already ascended there, and we are left with only the water as a reminder of the one we can no longer see.

Noting that martyr means “witness,” an accompanying statement by Viola and his producer Kira Perov compares the active witness of martyrs to the passive witness of those who merely consume images of suffering through mass media, adding that these four figures “exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship, and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs, and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance, and sacrifice.”[iv]

But these evocative images can’t be reduced to a single meaning. The more I watched, the more meanings and associations were generated. The first figure suggested Adam formed from the mud, or Christ rising from his grave, shedding mortality clump by clump. It also seemed a kind of birth.

The strongly sidelit second figure, whose white shift and platinum hair glowed against the black background like a Zurburan crucifixion, mirrored both Jesus and Joan of Arc.

Like gold in the furnace God tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering God accepted them.[v] The fire in the third panel not only recalled the light of burning martyrs, but the positive biblical tropes of the refiner’s fire and tongues of flame.

The fetal position of the fourth martyr evoked both the womb and the grave. The falling water made me think of both baptism and waterboarding. Once he was gone, however, it spoke to me of both memory and promise: what had happened to him, and what might happen to us.

Just what – or who – is at the other end of that rope anyway?

[i] “Technology and Revelation” is the title of a lecture I heard Viola give at the University of California at Berkeley, September 28, 2009.

[ii] David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium: The Video Art of Bill Viola,” Image, No. 26 ((Spring 2000), 32

[iii] This was Simone Weil’s definition of prayer.

[iv] From the installation’s explanatory text.

[v] Wisdom of Solomon 3:6

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