This powerful documentary follows the world’s most influential video artist, Bill Viola, and his wife and close collaborator, Kira Perov, over a twelve-year period. During this time they undertake and complete the installation of two permanent video works, Mary and Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), in St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Viola enjoys addressing spiritual and religious themes in his work and, as the title suggests, Martyrs draws upon the Christian conception of martyrdom with particular emphasis on the Greek root word meaning ‘witness’. Viola commented that Martyrs “exemplifies the human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles”.
Reluctant to describe himself as a video artist, Viola chooses to work with light as his medium. Martyrs is displayed using four plasma screens showing people in the process of being martyred by four cardinal elements: earth, wind, fire and water. The twist is that we, the viewer, do not observe their deaths objectively, but subjectively. Thus we don’t witness the actual deaths of the individuals but the subjective experience of them in the process of grace.
Mary, the second work made for St. Paul’s, was inaugurated in the North Quire aisle of the cathedral on 8 September 2016 to coincide with the Feast of Mary. The work is a triptych of vertical colour plasma screens supported by a cast carbon steel stand designed by Norman Foster and his team. Viola explains the importance of Mary as “a universal female figure present in nearly all spiritual and religious traditions … related to ideas of creativity, procreation, inner strength, love, and compassion.”
In documenting Viola’s approach, the award-winning arts documentary director, Gerald Fox, captures the essence of Viola’s creative process, along with the significant changes that occur in these two figures as the films progress. He also looks back at the career of this seminal artist, who since the early 1970s has taken video art to a new level of acceptance in contemporary visual arts.
Art Lives, from Arthaus, is a powerful and arresting series of documentaries on artists and art movements released for the first time on DVD in the English language.