Tag Archives: Art

How Real Are You? Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’



The installation at St Paul’s

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, I went to see Bill Viola’s video art installations at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The two moving-image works, Martyrs and Mary, are gifted to Tate and are on permanent loan to St Paul’s.  I will in this piece focus on Martyrs because talking too much about Mary would be a great spoiler – its meaning is only in seeing it, and reading anything descriptive about it will destroy its impact.  You will understand if you go and view it.

Born in 1951, when Viola was 6 years of age he fell into some water and nearly drowned. Looking back many years later, he says that while he was under water, he was able to register the beauty of this new world that he witnessed. The notion of the ‘real’ being under the surface is a key theme throughout his work, and this draws from his early experience with water.

He says ‘Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul. Because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep.’  There is no more of an appropriate time for this than Easter.  The installations, parts of which can be seen here, begin with, in Martyrs, humans in the process of beginning to be martyred, and in Mary, new life – a baby, but ending with death.  It got me thinking: the Christian faith is about Crucifixion followed by Resurrection, and recalling these events in Holy Week is a prime opportunity for us to start over and ‘wake up’. But actually, in our daily lives we are presented with such opportunities constantly but so often allow them to pass us by, and so the moment has gone – and we fall asleep again.

Viola sees cameras as keepers of the soul because of what they capture – an example being the filming of his mother as she died (she was in a coma).  He read St John of the Cross aged 16 which, like the experience with water, was highly influential and is evident here where his work seems to have an integral feeling of bringing back the numinous and focussing on the interior landscape of the human person.

The use of film to communicate to the audience is significant – we are used to being spectators but in this instance, we are not to be controlled by this usually controlling medium.  Going back to the theme of being asleep, in our daily lives we have allowed screens to dictate far too much to the point of being so addicted that an alien visiting earth would think our souls were stored in our phones rather than in our very being.  Well, these installations remind us that it is the latter: yes – I hate to break the news but your soul is not in your phone.  The essence of the humans in these installation is so intense – we are not controlled by them, or the screen in which they reside, but rather we are at one with them, as the tangibility of the flesh behind the screen is raw.

In Martyrs four actors are shown left to right, in isolation.  One is a man buried under earth, who gradually stands up and pushes through the soil; the second is a woman bound at her feet and wrists, and hanging from them as she is blown in the wind; the third is a man sitting on a chair surrounded by a circle of flames encroaching on him, and the fourth is a man hanging upside down with water pouring down on him, his arms outstretched.

Viola does not say what anyone is supposed to see in these or in what time period they are set. The man in the earth has overtones of Adam (man made from the earth) – or it could be a civilian caught in an earthquake; and the man hanging could be St Peter who was crucified upside down – or it could be someone undergoing waterboarding. These are just some of the reactions St Paul’s has received from the many visitors to the installation. There is a phrase which is something like ‘comfort the distressed and distress the comfortable’ – this work is an example of this process. The point is we should be affected in some way – not indifferent. It is the encounter that matters.

Whatever we think, as viewers we look and then walk away. Which is exactly what we do in life, at our peril. We condemn those who torture or kill others, and apparently empathise with the victims, but these actors within the screen seek to reflect us back to ourselves (as all good art does) and show our failings, which in this case is inaction – and force us to re-examine the term ‘martyr’. It can be ill used in today’s world.

The main issue I had with the martyrs is that there is no evidence of pain in their faces – even when a martyr accepts death willingly (alone, in order to stand for the truth – they do not impose this on others or wish to destroy others in their death), they would physiologically feel the agony of flames, or the horrendous pressure on their body hung upside down battling to breath with water blocking their air passages. Perhaps suffering is aestheticized, and too gentle in these installations? Are these martyrs too archetypal – to the point of being unreal?

But maybe that is the point – we don’t need to be ‘controlled’ by being shown four actors screaming and writhing in agony. We know this to be the case – and having to think for ourselves about these four human beings who appear peaceful and serene only makes manifest the real life current situation – it is the peaceful who have become martyrs at the mercy of many a brutal regime. Viola’s film medium has indeed subverted the idea of control – we have got it wrong if we are controlled by it and become its puppets. This is about what we do in response, as are the daily news pictures on our screens…

The study of Theology, in general, throws up more questions than it provides answers.  Likewise with these installations, and likewise with Easter. We simply cannot know answers to everything and it is increasingly difficult to find meaning in everything. If we are constantly looking for rational explanations for our experiences, including our sufferings, then we are missing the point. It is far more important to engage with the situation and in that moment, take a note of how we feel, and react. How we react makes us real, and if we don’t react we are perhaps the ones who are unreal.

As Disraeli said, ‘never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.’


The Arts as vehicles for Identity and Truth


In his statement to his film Mr Turner, Mike Leigh says:

“Back at the turn of the century, when ‘Topsy-Turvy’ was released, I wrote that it was “a film about all of us who suffer and strain to make other people laugh.”

Now I have again turned the camera round on ourselves, we who try to be artists, with all the struggles our calling demands. But making people laugh, hard as it is, is one thing; moving them to experience the profound, the sublime, the spiritual, the epic beauty and the terrifying drama of what it means to be alive on our planet – well, that’s altogether something else, and few of us ever achieve it, much as we may try.

Yet Turner the man was eccentric, anarchic, vulnerable, imperfect, erratic and sometimes uncouth. He could be selfish and disingenuous, mean yet generous, and he was capable of great passion and poetry.

Mr Turner is about the tensions and contrasts between this very mortal man and his timeless work, between his fragility and his strength.”

I enjoy films which are about complex people and I read this after seeing the film. Too often it feels as though society puts people into boxes and has no time to consider those who are outside the box. The business of the arts is to explore characters and the world they lived/live in.

Timothy Spall as Turner

Timothy Spall as Turner

Turner seemed not to engage with the reality of his own responsibilities yet his paintings engage realistically with the world of nature. I look at the paintings and their wildness strikes a chord with me – the emotions I can’t always engage with are almost acknowledged by the art and artist instead – on my behalf.

The same could be said of Beethoven the composer.  The classical pianist James Rhodes says ‘his music is the very definition of “interiority” – music became about feelings, about looking within and expressing things hitherto unsayable…Study Shakespeare and he will show us who we are.  Listen to Beethoven, a man tormented and isolated, who wrote simply to justify his artistic and intellectual existence, and he will show us who we could be.’


Another who was labelled as odd was Alan Turing – the code breaker in World War Two.  At the time, he didn’t behave or talk like ‘the group’ he was working with, but they learnt to respect and work with him – all portrayed brilliantly in the film The Imitation Game. We should be careful of the word ‘odd’ – life is complex, and we sometimes need complex people to illuminate our own lives, whether we see our lives as black and white, or grey.  As Oscar Wilde says ‘the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.’  And let us remember we are all human – so complexity generally comes with that.

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

The superb Benedict Cumberbatch as the persecuted Alan Turing

Message of Thanks


I wanted to say a big thank you to all the bloggers who’ve looked at my blog during its first year.  I’m grateful for you stopping by and hope you’ve got something out of it.  Thank you for your messages of support and interest.  Like all of you, there is something liberating about speaking into the midst of humanity even if like Amy Adams in the film ‘Julia and Julia’, I don’t always know who I am speaking to.

So, here are 3 paintings on the theme of hope for 2013.  The first is a favourite of mine – ‘Hope’ by G F Watts:

Hope by G F Watts

The second is totally appropriate for our time – ‘Hands of Hope’ by Anthony Hodge:

Hands of Hope by Anthony Hodge

The third shows hope through the eyes of nature – ‘Petals of Hope’ by Thomas Kinkade:

Petals of Hope by Thomas Kinkade

All three I think are beautiful.  I also have a quote which I found in the newsletter of a small charity doing wonderful work – Hands Around the World – www.hatw.org.uk

If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve obviously never been in bed with a mosquito.

Lots of small acts make a big difference.  One person can’t change the world but one person can change the world for one person, or one animal.

Puppetry as Reality in War Horse and beyond: why the Arts are important


The idea for this piece of writing came from watching the extraordinary stage production of War Horse at the New London Theatre in 2009 (now a major film), followed by a lecture at Central School of Speech and Drama with the South African Handspring Puppet Company (HPC) – the people behind War Horse when it originally played at the National Theatre.

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, founders of the HPC, believe puppetry has something particular to offer to a contemporary audience.  Most people acknowledge that the moment Joey the horse walks on stage in War Horse is a moment of awe, enchantment and often making them cry.  Kohler and Jones discussed the philosophy of this – why does an inanimate object make us emotional?  How is it that puppetry is so perceptive?  Because a puppet is a lifeless object longing to live.  It is an inanimate figure trying to live – and actually although we are not dead, we too do this – we are living on and off stage, but we often lose our presence and immediacy.  ‘Absence of being in the moment’ in life could be described as not exactly living.

A puppet’s struggles are essentially the same as ours – we live but we need to be authentic to be truly ourselves.  The puppet is a verb, not a noun.  Topthorn (Joey’s companion in battle for so long) dies – is this a puppet or a dead horse?  That puppet has already lived and we now believe this, and have been living its world with it, so it has transformed itself and our imaginations.  The audience works to make this meaning – the audience is the author.

The most interesting aspect of HPC’s philosophy is ‘Puppet as Deity’.   Although there is a lack of belief in God around these days, there is a religious impulse which resides in puppetry.  Kohler and Jones comment that theatre does in this in general anyway, but puppetry does this in disguise.  The puppeteer is a priest to the horse in the way that the puppet is used to illustrate the situation (as a priest uses bread and wine to tell a continual story).

It strikes me that puppetry is a search for an unknown language of emotions and the mystery of human nature (if you see War Horse you will understand) which faith also presents to us.  It is no accident that Handspring Puppet Company came out of a culture where the need for a shared language was sought, and it was well received in South Africa where human language was not always uniting black and white.

Why is it that it was a boom year for theatre last year?  People don’t acknowledge it, but most of us seek something which we can’t name.  What we can’t name can, by default, feel unreal – so therefore, should we bother to seek it?  Well, yes.  It is my firm belief that there is more truth in the perceived unreality of make-believe than there is in the hard reality of life.  Whether we like it or not we all have imagination and this is not an accident – this is the thing which makes us human.

The artist Chagall says: ‘All our interior world is reality – and that perhaps more so than our apparent world.  To call everything that appears illogical, ‘fantasy’, fairytale, or chimera – would be practically to admit not understanding nature.’  Years later, Salman Rushdie says the same: ‘If you grow up in India, you grow up surrounded by magic being a normal aspect of literature.  You realise that kind of writing is just as capable of getting to serious, truthful human realities as realistic writing is’ (The Metro, 13.10.2010).

Chagall painting

You find that most actors have something to say about the meaning of their job.  Kevin Spacey’s dedication to the Old Vic (rightfully gaining him a CBE) is because he believes culture is ‘the magic of life’ – a generator of economic as well as spiritual wellbeing (The Evening Standard, 4.11.2010).  The artist Paula Rego says that she tries not to ‘do art’ but rather ‘tell a story’.  Like any good acting, the intention behind it is what makes it truthful: one acts the situation, not the emotion.  And like the actors, it seems the audience feed off the stories – why has ‘The King’s Speech’ been such a hit (other than Firth and Rush being terrific)?  Because it is a story of the obstacles which we all have within ourselves which we think will stop us achieving and being the human we want to be.  The arts have this capability of being completely universal in meaning.  ‘It’s important for society to be able to reflect itself through storytelling.’  (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Guardian, 7.11.2010).

Cumberbatch in War Horse the film

What is tangible is not always what is and it is not always the solution to our living well.  There were a series of talks in 2010 at St Paul’s Cathedral on Death, Happiness, Love and Suffering.  In all four, similar themes came out: we are fixed on having, not being.  The USA and the UK spend more on advertising than any other country in the world; we also have the most cases of mental illness.  Revd. Mark Oakley, on one of the occasions, talked about the ‘perversion of Descartes’ which is ‘I’m seen, therefore I am’ (rather than, ‘I think, therefore I am’) – he established something very disturbing: ‘we spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like.’  Who benefits?  Nobody.  We are in a world of instant information – everything is graspable – which means nothing is graspable because once we have something we realise we don’t need it and it doesn’t make us happy.  There was a case in the press recently of the man who had 541 friends on Facebook but not one of them realised he was dead.  As George Eliot said, the texture of wisdom is different to that of information, yet it is the former we lack.

When we see or feel realness, we feel a jolt: we are out of the zone of information and in the zone of deeper wisdom where something we can’t pin down has got to us.  It’s not for nothing that Frieze Magazine in Contemporary Art and Culture brought out a complete issue in November 2010 entirely devoted to Religion and Spirituality (Issue 135).  Its opening article, ‘Believe It or Not’ by Dan Fox brings together a lot of the above:  ‘Art is a faith-based system.  Religious conviction is taken to be a sign of intellectual weakness, and yet meaning in art is itself often a question of belief.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides.  Why does the search for some kind of spiritual fulfilment in secular art persist?  Is the idea that art has nothing to do with faith or religion just a lie we tell ourselves to hide the fact we crave something to believe in?’ (pg. 15).

But nor do I believe that we create something because we ‘crave’ for it.  I think the ‘something’ is already there – it is the thing we can’t pin down so tend to think it doesn’t exist since it’s not tangible.  The arts are a way of manifesting what doesn’t easily come to the surface naturally.  I mentioned ‘The King’s Speech’ – explicitly it’s about a public man who stammers – but implicitly it’s about an obstacle that makes him feel inadequate.  I can think of many paintings and sculptures that display explicitly a scene, but actually are about a bigger universal theme.  I think of Vaughan Williams’ music and it so vividly describes the English countryside as it was (and still is if we look after it) but it reaches further also to evoke a time of great loss of life and heritage (i.e. two world wars) which will never be tangible again.  The people and that way of life are gone.

Call art, music, dance and drama, signposts, but I think they are more as they contain meaning as well as pointing beyond.  Likewise I think the way we illustrate faith is very similar.  Unfortunately belief about God is more complex (and I actually find talking about faith hard as everyone gets so offended these days) but if you think of the Bible stories, yes they are about something, but always point beyond to a larger theme.  Every good sermon does this.  ‘We still rely on artists, curators and critics to act as interpreters of contingent meaning, aesthetic creeds or art world ‘ethics’, just as rabbis, imams and priests do.  People go to galleries on Sundays instead of churches.  Appeals to the immaterial are buried deep within the everyday language of art too: words such as ‘spiritual’, ‘transcendent’, ‘meditative’, and ‘sublime’ frequently occur in exhibition reviews, press releases and gallery guides’ (Dan Fox, Frieze Magazine, pg. 15).

Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

In conclusion, I come back to War Horse and puppetry.  Joey and Topthorn are many things: lifeless objects with no emotion until moved by a human, living beings which move humans to tears, not only taking us back to a catastrophic time in human history but reminding us of our vulnerability and our own capacity for evil.  The puppets move, and work with our imaginations to make us feel compassion for all the horses that received horrific injuries and died.  So, quite clearly our imagination in this instance is not to make something magical into a truth – it is the reverse – portraying something truthful in a magical setting (the stage).

We need these arenas that the arts provide therefore – to do precisely this: present something which is truthful, in a truthful way (i.e. story) through the medium of imagination to show us that just because something isn’t immediately graspable, doesn’t mean it is not there.

Peter Brook in ‘There Are No Secrets’:

‘Truth can never be defined, nor grasped, but the theatre is a machine which enables all its participants to taste an aspect of truth within a moment; theatre is a machine for climbing and descending the scales of meaning…Theatre is an external ally of the spiritual way, and it exists to offer glimpses, inevitably of short duration, of an invisible world that interpenetrates the daily world and is normally ignored by our senses.’