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Bill Viola & Michelangelo 'Life Death Rebirth' - Royal Academy

Updated: Feb 14, 2020


Bill Viola is one of the first-generation artists that works with video. In his exhibition which was collaborated with a passed away artist in Royal Academy of Arts, Viola worked in large scale video installations, propelling the medium from experimental margins of contemporary practice.



Men searching for Immortality / Women searching for eternity 2013

Viola collaborated the metaphysical and spiritual themes into a psychological investment. His work consists of combining contemporary technology to medieval, Renaissance art as well as religious beliefs such as Buddhism, Sufism and Christian mysticism. Video installations created in this exhibition, consisted of an introduction of 3D space in Renaissance period.  The exhibition had walls coloured in burgundy, black and dark blue, making the scenery mystic, yet pessimistic. He named himself a sculptor of time: creating real life video streams and then slowing it down to take us in a flow of our daily life in a slower pace. His work is usually looped in a continuous cycle becomes the symbol of the cyclical nature of existence. (Life Death and Rebirth) Viola’s concept of aesthetics is rooted from the ancient Greek ‘perception through the senses’ Viola explores the relationship between the mind and body in his works such as his famous artworks ‘Man searching for Immortality/Women searching for Eternity. (2013).



The Messenger 1996

The video installation shows a man gradually emerges from deep within the water, rising to the surface to take some air before returning back to the depths of water. The work represents the religious take of Christian and Buddhist traditions of reincarnation and rebirth. The context evokes the St John the Baptist, Christ himself.



The Reflecting Pool 1977-79

Viola represents the metaphor of man and nature juxtaposed with the physical presence of the body and of what lies beneath. The piece isn’t just an installation but contains a personal message of the persons story from birth to death whom inside the water. The way Viola uses video, represents the person’s consciousness and experience where the perception is transformed through feeling, memory and dreams.

Men searching for Immortality / Women searching for eternity 2013

An elderly man and women, naked in a dark background, repeatedly searches their own bodies with a torchlight, trying to understand and find meaning to their failed bodies. This slowly projected bodies embody how they are lost through time and how their bodies changed.




Nantes Triptych 1992

In this piece, there are three different video screens of birth, death and rebirth installations. The first video consists of a woman giving birth taken the video on real time with her husband holding her. The last video is Viola’s own mother the week before she died in a hospital bed. The video in between represents a more ethereal imagery, where a figure floats in water, representing how time flows, suggesting the inner dimensions that are not bound in our moral and world. (Re- birth or reincarnation).


“The real investigation is that of life and of being itself; the medium is just a tool in this investigation”. – Bill Viola 1985
The years of my life’s journey have reached their mark, like an arrow that has landed on its target, and so the burning fire landed on its target.” – Michelangelo c.1524

The Sleep of Reason

The piece represents a domestic interior, where a personal, individual space is evoked through a mundane interior. The interior has a time where lights, sounds are flash overwhelming the cosy interior and the audience. The space proposes a rational waking world disrupted by the irrational world of dreams and the subconscious. In Carl Jung’s point of view, the conflictual element of dreams is an archetypal condition of the passage of someone’s life journey and the relationship.


Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475- 1546) considered one of the greatest fine artists in the Western world. With his works combining the sublime to a grandeur with amazing skills and expressive power, his works were described as ‘terribilita’. His skills of drawing and creativity nourished Bill Viola’s concept of the cycle of life. The exhibition combines Viola’s video installations to Michelangelo’s 14 different drawings produced through his life. Not all drawings were completely finished, and most were made for friends and some for his lover Roman nobleman Tommaso de Cavalieri. Whilst some of the pieces are more religious, inspired by the spiritual intellectual Vittoria Colonna, and reflected Michelangelo’s on spiritual self. Last but not least, the exhibition contains drawings of the last years of before Michelangelo’s death, mostly his own takes about his own impending death.



The passing of the material body and the possibility of rebirth is shown in this exhibition with installations and imagery. Michelangelo’s work struck a chord to Viola, where they both were subjects of nature and fate of the soul, with a more emotional and intellectual effect. The exhibition illustrates the means of Viola being the ‘modern Michelangelo’ of the era. Michelangelo believed that with Christ's death, divine grace flowed to humanity, a belief that informed his understanding of the relation between the spiritual and the material.


'Christ is depicted as athletic and muscular; beauty of form bent to an expression of the divine.'

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