American artist Bill Viola caused ripples
of controversy when he showed The Messenger in Durham Cathedral last year. Now the work is in Scotland.
‘ Words: Susanna Beaumont
A vast screen is filled with water. A dense. deep blue. Submerged in the water is a blurred. shimmering form. Gradually its features become clearer to reveal the form of a lone. naked man. Slowly his body rises to the watch end. the head cuts through the surface and gasps deeply for air. Breath taken. the figure sinks back into the watery depths.
The rl/Ir'ssmtger is a loft - 1 projection by American artist course Of hfe'
Bill Viola and. judging by the lengthy column inches
; it attracted in last year‘s national press. it was ; probably one of the highest profile artworks of 1996.
In short it caused a stir. Not so much because of the figures nudity. but because it was nude in Durham Cathedral. Commissioned by the North East Chaplaincy as part of the North East's Year of Visual Arts. the work was flanked by screens. The local constabulary had advised such a cautionary measure for unsuspecting cathedral visitors. Now on a nation- wide tour. The Messenger is being shown in the more secular surroundings of Edinburgh‘s Fruitmarket Gallery.
Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak has described the work as ‘one of the finest pieces of church art I have seen — perhaps the finest’. The controversy was possibly more to do with the perceived collision of old and new — a very 2()th
84 THE LIST 3O May—12 Jun I997
'Technology shouldn't be seen as evil, it is one of the great forces that has changed the
All at sea: Bill Viola's The Messenger
century state-of-the art laser projection against a backdrop of a Norman cathedral.
For Viola. the issues are more complex. He views the 2()th century as an aberration because ‘artistic practice doesn't concern itself with universal themes which define the human condition.’
He is. however. no God-squad artist. Nor could be remotely be described as conservative. Now in his forties. he was one of the first artists to work in video back in the early 70s — along with Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci — and his forthcoming solo show at New York’s Whitney Museum is proof of his international standing.
Yet for Viola. tradition and technology are the bedrocks of artistic progress. ‘Turning away from tradition has a positive side as tradition can be limiting. bttt there is nothing without tradition.‘ says Viola, who sees the frescos of Renaissance Italy as one-time avant-garde installations. ‘Technology shouldn’t be seen as evil. It is one of the great forces that has changed the course of life.‘
The /W('.\‘.w’ltgr’r. with its cyclical sequence of the lone figure coming up for air. suggests not just baptism but birth. renewal and breathing — themes that stretch far beyond the confines of the Christian church. In titling the work The IW(’.S'.S‘(’Ilg(’I’. Viola wanted to suggest ‘someone who brings you something from another place. a connection from another place.’ He goes on to quote lines from the American poet Walt Whitman. ‘By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon. The messenger there arous‘d. the fire the sweet hell within. The unknown want. the destiny of me.‘
Viola once described his work as a sort of ‘wake- up call’. His on-screen moving landscapes of figures and forms act as stepping stones from the real world to the metaphysical. Viola perhaps thinks we have been dreaming for too long.
Bill Viola's The Messenger and The Crossing is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Sat 7 Jun-Sat 26 Jul.
Murmurs, musings and goings-on from the art world.
THERE HAS BEEN talk for months about what the Fruitmarket’s summer show was going to be. Mention had been made of an Indian equivalent of last year's showcase of contemporary Chinese art. But it seems that negotiations proved tricky and the gallery was unable to pull off another 'spotlight on another culture' show. Instead it is to be German artist Gerhard Richter and his Multiples 1965-1997, organised in association with London's Anthony d'Offey Gallery.
AFTER A SECOND round of interviews, it looks as if Sue Daniels from Oriel Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno in Wales has got the job of Director of Visual Arts at the Scottish Arts Council, with the departure of Andrew Nairne. It's a good appointment - Daniels has long had a keen eye on what's happening in Scotland and has in recent years shown work by Ian Hamilton Finlay.
DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS ARE on the line in Glasgow it seems. Former Glasgow MEP Janey Buchan and others have written to Lord Rothschild, chairman of the National Heritage Lottery Board, requesting that plans be revealed to the public for the so-called Disneyfication of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. They feel the public has not been consulted about the future of the Glasgow institution. The plans are to be spearheaded by none other than director of Glasgow Museums Julian Spalding.
ALAN DAVIE MAY be considered by some as Scotland's greatest post- war painter, but should the National Galleries of Scotland be buying four paintings with £112,500 of Lottery money? The National Galleries' acquisitions policy could be in danger of being too narrow, to the neglect of younger artists working in Scotland. That said, the National Gallery of Modern Art is to be commended for showing young artist duo Dalziel and Scullion's End/esst in July.
THE NOBLE GROSSART Painting Prize is in its second year. With a first prize of £10,000, it is Scotland's richest open art competition. The closing date for the competition,
5 held in association with Scotland On
Sunday, is 22 September. But by concentrating on painting, the award excludes other exciting developments in the art world, from video to conceptual art.
Drawing rulesia pen and ink drawing by Alan Davie