Tag Archives: Easter

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.’


Magic in the gem that is Genoa: another view of Easter


I don’t always have material to write about so don’t like to write unless I’ve something new and meaningful to share; thankfully I’ve got something for this month’s post.  I recently spent some time in Genoa Italy – which I found enchanting, beautiful, but with a shade of sadness within the town and its streets.  I can’t put my finger on it, but some kind of ache for feelings and people past, got into my skin.  It is also a place where time can stand still if you let it even though at times it is a fast place with people rushing about.  But head out into the restaurants, coffee shops, the harbour with its views if you climb high enough, and the coast, and you are transported to a different time and level.

My fascination is with a statue in the rock at Monterossa, on the Cinque Terre (meaning Five Lands):

man in rock

Bombs and harsh seas have reduced the giant man, ‘Il Gigante’ to an armless, over-powering figure keeping watch over the sea.  He is Neptune, built in 1910.  It was designed and built by Arrigo Minerbi, a Jewish Italian sculptor who had works in several cathedrals.  In 1937 he was forced into hiding due to his Jewish ancestry.  The statue is far from timid and shows its strength in its ruin – it is a ruin yes but its beauty is in its decay – it retains its watchful and perceptive eye on humanity.  Is he holding up the world, and suffering as a result?

As I write this I can’t help but think of this figure as the ‘Ecce Homo’ – ‘Behold/Here is the man’ – which is especially poignant at Easter.  The figure is not a personal one but nor is it removed from us.  It is a human and we can identify with this.  It is solid, yet at times, probably crumbling.  Like our fragile world, and its people.

I was also interested in the writing on the walls in the streets in Genoa – in its alleyways mainly.  Again there are links with my feelings for the giant – the words in the photo below mean ‘we are dead to the dead’ and ‘we have lost our meaning/centre’.  Powerful and worrying words.  If this is the case, this is tragic.  Have we?  What meaning do we have in our lives?


I leave you with the image of The Man; weak and strong at the same time, like us all, and always vulnerable.

man in rock 2



Film Review: The Gospel of Us


In April 2011, over three days beginning on Good Friday, the town of Port Talbot in South Wales came together to stage The Passion through the streets with Michael Sheen as their Jesus-like figure.  A year later, those three days of drama have been turned into a two hour film.  The locals became the cast, crew and heroes of it and for this reason the film never feels ‘acted’ but instead harrowingly and stunningly real.  It is hard for me to describe the film as I would not do its uniqueness justice – I have never seen anything quite like it.  The editing style itself will stay with me before I can even think about Sheen’s magnetic presence as ‘The Teacher’ who, much like the Jesus of the gospels, attracts and repels the crowd in equal measure.

The setting of The Passion revolves around the fictional story of a battle that Port Talbot is fighting.  Authoritarian forces have taken over and a ruthless, sinister corporation is in control, called ICU.  They are after the town’s resources and a company man clashes with a suicide bomber on the beach.  What could have been a bloody massacre is saved by a softly spoken loner who tells us later that he is here ‘to listen’ (The Teacher).  He is a local man, who disappeared 40 days earlier, who has lost his memory.  ICU seek to get rid of him since he is a trouble maker.  The biblical parallels are at this point clear – certain figures are representative of the names we associate with the Easter story.

The authority

At the screening I went to, Director Dave McKean and writer (of the book it was based on) Owen Sheers were present for a Q&A session post show, which offered great insight into the making of the film and how the project began via National Theatre Wales.  Sheen, whose home town is Port Talbot, had wanted to do a secular response to The Passion – secular maybe, but the journey one is taken on through the film takes one into a sphere that is not of the everyday and yet the film is for everyman.  The secular symbolism in the film is so profound, such as the sharing of Sheen’s sandwiches with some people who have started to follow him, and the conversation with his earthly dad, a roofer, about the value of a broken slate, is so striking, it made me feel that once I walked outside the cinema I would quite easily find the divine in just about anything.  The film is an achievement in film making, acting and meaning, but Christian viewers may find it even more faith affirming (though it does not set out to do this) because of what it does implicitly – I will take time to explain this.

At one level, the film is an example of the omnipresence of technology in our lives and how this has had both a disturbing and creatively good impact on our lives.  McKean didn’t anticipate the intrusion of phones of the ‘crowd’ in his face whilst he was trying to film and the filming of people filming with their phones adds a huge dynamic to the film because it then becomes a mirror in which society can look at itself.  It is not a film about ‘how Port Talbot staged The Passion’ – it is a record of the three days of a man on a journey, unrehearsed.  It overwhelms Sheen at one point – again, this is all recorded and shown in the film, who asks a man in the crowd why he is filming him on his phone (the man is being filmed filming – if that makes sense) and the man replies because he wants to be here.  Sheen replies, as Sheen, ‘then be here’; ‘be here with me’.  What may have been seen as intrusive (a mobile phone) actually becomes a catalyst for the theme of the film and of Easter – be here, be present.   The phone is a vehicle for asking us, are we present in this world to witness what is happening – do we relate to each other in a society of virtual reality where you can have a relationship involving no relating (the internet and phone)?  How brilliant the film is in using technology to record the last three days of this man’s life but at the same time using the very vehicle that has made the film what it is, to turn the phenomenon of technology on its head: beware of who and what your master is when looking for meaning in life.

I hope I am enticing you to see this film.  It is truly modern and yet timeless (like the gospels whether you are believer or not) because it is a story and a story told with all the truth of human emotion.  It is also timeless because of its take on who The Teacher is.  This you begin to see at the end of the film through a sequence of shots of Michael Sheen which he shot himself, whilst in isolation.  They indicate isolation, brokenness and loneliness – I can’t say more for fear of spoiling the film, but all human life is here.  And it is these themes that are continual through the film linked through the one main theme of memory.  Sheen collects a core group of followers in the lead up to the Crucifixion who he ‘rescues’ – the first one in a very obvious way in the shape of a suicide bomber.  All, like him, are struggling with some element of their past, often because they can’t remember or work out what went wrong – the film at these points – via each one’s story, is fractured and disturbing with dream-like sequences.  The power of the film’s editing at these moments reflects the state of the characters’ minds so you’re not only seeing the power of the locals’ acting but the structure of the film illustrates this (McKean has a background in graphic design, illustration, sculpture and music and this is all evident by the way he’s made the film).  Again, the deeper meaning is always there, Sheen says at one social gathering, to his lost yet found friends, ‘we find ourselves in each other’.  It is through pain (both physical pain in mind and body in the here and now, and painful memories) that peace, understanding and often resolution can be found.

The importance of the play on words ‘ICU’ become clear – all those who follow Him, see him.  He says to the suicide bomber ‘I see you’ – you are found because you have been seen and through being seen, you see this Jesus-like figure and ultimately see yourself.  The underlying spiritual truths are heartbreakingly moving.

For me, it is not a ‘made’ film – it is one that evolves as the viewer’s response grows through it.  Port Talbot was clearly sucked into the world of the play and if the crew just set out to give a secular response they have achieved a lot more.  This is most evident in the Crucifixion when the crowd become ‘the mob’ just by virtue of wanting to see Sheen and at those moments in the film, Owen Sheers spoke of the strange moral vacuum – Sheen is violently beaten, away from the crowds but the crowd watch on big screens – people are still filming the whole event on their phones which can be seen as disgusting and when this is continued at the actual Crucifixion you feel it is then simply wrong, and yet the artistic effect of the Dali-like Christ hanging above Port Talbot with the thousands of camera phones flashing looks like stardust, and the blood and screaming of the event has transpired into a mystical spectacle.

The longer the film stays in my mind, the more metaphors and truths about life walk into my mind.  Port Talbot is in a battle for its life as the film opens, a battle for its identity – it is a town scarred by the M4 motorway – this is its story, its ‘mark’, or a blot on the landscape (it appears in one of the dream sequences as ‘the monster with stone legs’), and the town is desperate to ‘reremember’ itself.  To say The Teacher takes on the scars of the motorway in his bearing of another kind of monster (the cross) is not taking the symbolism too far, because human kind essentially looks for identity and if this is being taken away, people feel desperate and perform actions which don’t make sense.  It is not for nothing that the words ‘I Am’ are uttered in the film, the full meaning of them and the context in which they were said continues to resonate days after viewing the film.