Enduring the Elements

Exploring mortal drama with religious overtones.

When Mr. Viola first made his reputation, in the 1980s, as a pioneering video artist from New York, his work seemed more secular than sacred. In the poignant “Nantes Triptych” (1992), three screens record the birth of a baby, a man surrounded by water and an old woman’s death in a hospital. The baby was Mr. Viola’s second child and the dying woman was his mother. So his fascination with extreme mortal drama was already clear, but his exploration of religious images became overt as he grew older. The overseers of St. Paul’s were very impressed by his 2003 exhibition at the National Gallery in London, where he disclosed an intense interest in traditional Christian art. Small wonder, then, that “Martyrs” was commissioned for the cathedral, where Mr. Viola’s figures immediately look at home in a building dedicated to suffering and redemption.

Nic Cha Kim

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