Thursday, July 9, 2009

Thought for the Day: St. Paul's Cathedral, Artwork and contemplation

BBC Radio 4: July 9th

The contemporary artist Bill Viola was on this programme yesterday, speaking about his latest project that involves installing several large plasma video screens at St Paul's Cathedral. Down one side of Wren's great masterpiece, these screens will play images of the Virgin Mary, and down the other, images of martyrdom.

In his interview with Bill Viola, John Humphreys seemed a little sniffy about the whole idea - and I suspect he won't be alone. I imagine quite a few people will think it inappropriate to have all this technological wizardry in such a beautiful house of prayer.

Perhaps this lack of ease originates in the association that screens have with noisy video games or fast moving action movies. But the thing is, Bill Viola's work could hardly be more different. For in Viola's fantastically moody videos, things often happen very very slowly indeed. Sometimes the image looks motionless - or just makes the slightest of movements, giving the impression of an even greater stillness than a fixed image ever could. In his work Reflecting Pool Viola invites us to sit for several minutes and watch the ripples and reflections in a pond.

In other words, Bill Viola demands that we give him our time. Which means that impatient people like me - who have the ability to skip through a traditional art gallery in ten minutes, often looking out for little more the next picture I recognise - are forced to stop and wait and watch and take their time. And that is exactly what a place like St Paul's Cathedral has been trying to get people to do for centuries.

Outside the cathedral, the city of London races on at a thousand miles an hour, with banks making millions of trades a minute. Inside the cathedral, people are led along by the completely different rhythms of matins and choral evensong. Here is time to think and be still.

This is why, in my view, Bill Viola's artworks are entirely appropriate for the cathedral. For Viola does not feed the impatient ego, forever greedy for the next new experience or the next glittering distraction. Rather, his work takes its lead from the wisdom of contemplative prayer where many have discovered in the discipline of silence profound sources of human nourishment that can shape our lives. We are often only aware of these when we remove ourselves from the maelstrom of perpetual forward motion where the big questions of life are easily and conveniently dodged. And I wonder if - amidst all this current talk of regulating banks and financial controls - the very simple proposition that we ought to slow things down a bit might actually have a far greater impact on our destructive boom and bust philosophy than any government legislation could ever hope to have.

Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser