It’s rare that an exhibition can make you fall to your knees, shake yours fists at the heavens with tears rolling down your face and scream ‘Why, God? WHY?’ But here I am in the Royal Academy’s forecourt doing just that, begging for an answer as to why in the name of Satan you’d put American video art pioneer Bill Viola’s work next to drawings by one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Why, God? WHY?
Well, to be fair, there is a connection between the two artists: both Mike and Bill love them some spirituality. For Michelangelo, that’s expressed through devotional drawing, returning repeatedly to the same religious subjects as an act of meditation. For Viola, it’s through creating work about the passage from nothingness to life and on to death.
But other than that, there is zero reason for putting them in the same room. ‘Two artists, separated by five hundred years’ reads the opening wall panel. It neglects to mention that they’re also separated by a gaping chasm of talent so wide it threatens to swallow the entire city, a black hole of naffness we’re all in danger of being sucked into.
It’s a neatly atmospheric show, though. The galleries are pitch black except for the video screens and stark spotlights on Michelangelo’s drawings. The Viola works deal with birth, death and the muckiness in between, largely via the medium of really slow-motion upside-down videos of people diving into water. Sometimes they don’t dive, sometimes they just bob about a bit.
Lots of these pieces sit opposite Michelangelo drawings – expert studies in anatomy, devotion and skill. Michelangelo is one of the great Old Masters, one of art history’s most important figures. His images here, humble as they might be, are stunning examples of why he’s so important.
Michelangelo’s works are prayers to God in visual form, years and years of study and unbelievable skill poured into solemn images. Viola’s works say one thing, very simply. Their symbolism is uncomfortably obvious and, although they’re only a few years old, they already look dated.
But even if you like Bill Viola, why would you want to see him look so stupid by putting him next to Michelangelo? Does anyone really think they deserve level pegging? It’s like the difference between a brilliant mathematician and a spaniel with a calculator. Sure, it looks like maths when the dog paws and slobbers at the machine and numbers show up on the screen, but what the mathematician is doing is on a whole other level.