It took 11 years to bring Bill Viola to St Paul’s Cathedral – but it was worth it

Behind the scenes of the American video artist’s new installation 'Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)'

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

7 June 2014

9:00 AM

Deans are a strange breed. Growing up in the Church of England, I met a wide range, their cultural tastes embracing everything from Chagall to In Bed with Madonna. In 2003, I didn’t know what appealed to the then Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Moses, but in April of that year it suddenly became crucial. I was proposing that St Paul’s commission the artist Bill Viola — dubbed by some the Rembrandt of the video age — to create a work for the cathedral. Since Moses had never heard of Viola and I didn’t work in the visual-arts world, it seemed a far-fetched proposition.

Yet I was in no doubt that it should happen. The madness had seized me during a road trip in California, not because of substances I had consumed but because of a visit to the Getty in Los Angeles. It was an extraordinary time. The second Gulf War had just started, and as shock jocks barked out anti-Saddam diatribes on the radio, fighter jets occasionally zoomed overhead on practice manoeuvres before heading out to the Middle East. Amid the noise and insanity, it was a relief to escape to the modernist serenity of the Getty Center on a driverless tram that rose with sci-fi slickness up the Santa Monica Mountains.

Bill Viola: The Passions had opened there that January. To this day, I am relieved that I caught the exhibition at the Getty first, rather than at the National Gallery. Whereas the London exhibition worked too hard to contextualise what Viola was doing, at the Getty you could experience the works on their own, mostly in darkened spaces. Viola had spent a long time studying the representation of the extremes of human emotion, specifically in 15th- and 16th-century religious works of art. In the 12 resulting slow-motion videos, actors, arranged as if they were in Renaissance paintings, experienced emotions so powerful that they seemed like small internal earthquakes. Despite their intellectual origin, the best way to experience the videos was as unselfconsciously as possible: to stand back from the explanatory notes and immerse yourself viscerally in what was taking place before your eyes.

My late father, John Halliburton, was a canon of St Paul’s Cathedral who had worked diligently to open up the cathedral’s collection of paintings and manuscripts to the London art world. So on one level it was an automatic leap to think that Viola should come to St Paul’s. But my father could not make the commission. Despite his support, he and I decided it was initially best for me to make the approach to the Dean in my capacity as an arts critic.

My instinct was that what Viola was striving to achieve — influenced by Hindu, Buddhist and Sufi works as much as by Christian ones — was one of the most exciting developments in religious art for decades. A cathedral needs constantly to evolve the way it communicates with the outside world. Yet it is also an extraordinary, timeless place in which to experience art, not least because — whatever your beliefs — you are forced to confront two things when you walk through its doors: your insignificance and your mortality. During my childhood at Chichester Cathedral, I had watched the visionary dean Walter Hussey commission artists who could respond to these conflicting imperatives, including Chagall, who produced his beautiful stained-glass window, and Bernstein, who composed his ‘Chichester Psalms’. I told Dean Moses that Viola’s work, which is a response to the past as well as a new visual idiom, seemed a fittingly dynamic complement to Wren’s architecture.

The yes didn’t come straight away, but Moses was cautiously positive. So I approached heavyweights to reinforce the proposal. Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery and now chairman of the cathedral’s Fabric Advisory Committee, was strongly supportive. Encouraged, I set up a meeting with Bill Viola’s representative, Graham Southern, who was equally enthusiastic. The project gathered momentum. On 7 July, Bill Viola and his wife Kira Perov came to a breakfast meeting at St Paul’s. It was a beautiful sunny morning, full of hope. None of us could have predicted at that stage how long and fraught the process would prove: 11 years, three deans and Byzantine levels of negotiation on the part of Southern and Nairne.

Now ‘Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)’ — a four-panel work depicting individuals in different stages of suffering — has been unveiled to positive reviews, and ‘Mary’ is set to join it in 2015. The installation of ‘Martyrs’ has been heralded by one publication as a ‘big moment in religious art’. I played an extremely tiny part in this, but am proud of and also very grateful to those who engaged in the decade-long wrestling match to make it happen. My biggest regret is that my father is not alive to see it, but I’d like to think that somewhere, somehow, he is enjoying the fruition of that July breakfast.

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