Video artists aren't often granted museum retrospectives, but Bill Viola is different. If there's an artist that can bring together disparate mediums of video art and the distinctive style of the Renaissance, it is Viola, who has been called a video artist for people who don't like video art.
His latest creation, exhibited at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, includes a series of large-scale installations that are positioned alongside some of the Renaissance works that inspired him. The result is a melding and juxtaposition of the two that gives both the video project and the Renaissance pieces deeper weight and meaning.
One of the exhibition's thrills is comparing, back and forth, Viola's work to the Renaissance masterpieces that inspired them. A 1439 fresco by Paolo Uccello called "The Flood and the Receding of the Waters" is seen in a striking new light when juxtaposed with Viola's 2002 video work The Deluge. In Viola's work, city dwellers calmly walk by a white brick building. Then, some begin to hurry and look around furtively. Finally, a sense of panic begins to grow as water begins to trickle, and a gush of water flows from its windows and doors, intensifying into a literal flood.
Above: "Diluvio universale e recessione delle acque" ("The Flood and Receding of the Waters"), by Paolo Uccello, 1439-1440 circa
Below: "The Deluge (Going Forth by Day)" by Bill Viola, 2002
"If you stand back, Viola's modern interpretation of the biblical epic can be glimpsed alongside Uccello's version," said art reviewer Isabel Stevens. "Both are chilling depictions of the scramble for self-preservation amid the fury of the water." Yet Viola's ends on an even more eerie note, she said: the water stops, revealing a pristine, sunlit scene with no human presence.
Viola manages something similar in the video project Man Searching for Immortality/Woman Searching for Eternity, particularly when it's contrasted to the piece "Adam and Eve," painted by Cranach the Elder in 1528. In Viola's work, two elderly naked figures look at their hands and arms with spotlights, perhaps looking for evidence of their own immortality. The work is a meditative contrast to "Adam and Eve," in which a young woman is calmly depicted with a contemplative visage, her smooth skin and rich red hair belying any concern about her own immortality.
The exhibition includes several examples of Viola's large-scale works, which touch on familiar themes of suffering or rebirth.
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