Viola’s “Martyrs”: Sleek, Glam, Empty

Simon Willis writes: ‘”Martyrs,” a new work by the American video artist Bill Viola, is difficult to take as seriously as it takes itself. It is being shown as a permanent exhibit in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, just a few feet from the high altar, and is designed as a kind of altarpiece. Four plasma screens are arranged in a row on a sleek metal stand by the architect Norman Foster. Each screen shows a silent video, a little over seven minutes long, of a person undergoing a highly aestheticized ordeal involving, respectively, earth, air, fire, and water—all captured with sumptuous visual effects and all withstood in serene and saintly forbearance. They are intended to focus our attention, Viola says, on “our capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to values, beliefs and principles.”’

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