Bill Viola's new commission in St Paul's Cathedral and Ruper Newman's light show within a chapel revive the age-old link between the church and the gallery for the digital ag
Light and colour have always been an important trope in Christian art and allegory; illiterate medieval congregations would have looked at the stained glass images to decode the Latin Mass they were unable to understand. Projection mapping connects the digital to the physical, and in Rupert Newman’s light projections, to the spiritual. A galactic-themed show at the Guildhall is his most recent commission, whilstAltered Perspectives, first premiered during last year’s Frieze London, was encored in December at the chapel in the House of St. Barnabus.
Falling somewhere between animation and abstraction, Newman’s light shows map kaleidoscopic arrangements of colours and shapes to the contours of buildings. A curious interplay between reality and illusion emerges, the projections at once transporting us from and bringing us closer to the space. A recurring sequence of coloured shards of glass that build, shatter and collapse creates an experience both reflective and dramatic. His light pieces begin as paintings on paper, the cyclical nature of the work reflected in his processes. “The majority of my projects are reverse engineered - I know the technological boundaries, and work backwards from there,” he explains.
Newman’s background in textiles brings an important focus on materials; in Altered Perspectives, the light seems to create ripples and waves as it cloaks the walls, transforming the stone through textural illusion. This elemental quality finds a resonance in Martyrs, Bill Viola’s long-term installation commission at St. Paul’s Cathedral, in which four videos depict stoic individuals overwhelmed by earth, air, fire and water. The dramatic tension of this ritual is somewhat diluted as its seven-minute video loop becomes a cycle, their endurance emerging in each reiteration as increasingly inevitable. Here, a tangible counterpoint to the perilous uncertainty that so often characterises religious rhetoric is given, instead offering a safe certainty in the repetition inherent to the technology of Viola’s medium.
A curious interplay between reality and illusion emerges, the projections at once transporting us from and bringing us closer to the space.
Viola’s piece comes as the latest in a career-long focus on spiritual suggestion in art, which will be followed up this year with a companion piece, Mary. The blank faces of the martyrs are reiterated in the somewhat eerie absence of sound amidst the tourist bustle of St. Paul’s. Newman’s work, on the other hand, finds the “additional dimension of sound vital in providing a sonic transcription of opposition to the visual geometry of the piece, creating an immersive and mesmeric event,” as he states in our emailed correspondence.
It is certainly clear that Newman’s pieces are events in themselves; site-specific and ephemeral, the role of the viewer is caught somewhere between audience and congregation. This is only heightened by the choral soundtrack and smell of burnt sage that accompanies Altered Perspectives. Meanwhile at St. Paul’s, Viola’s Martyrs deliberately references the Greek meaning ‘witness’, again bringing an interior focus on the viewer’s position. Striking parallels can also be found in the two artists’ stated aims: Viola hopes to make works that act as “practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”, while Newman wishes his work to be “positive … even therapeutic.”
Both artists also reference a modern association between art galleries and churches, suggesting the idea that these spaces affect our behaviours and moods in similar ways. The Catholic Church was the most important patron of Western art for centuries, and Martyrs is only the latest in St. Paul’s ongoing arts programme, which counts Yoko Ono, Rebecca Horn and Antony Gormley as alumni. The intersection of church and gallery is perhaps most apparent when looking out from the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s and faced with another temple of worship, Tate Modern, to which Viola’s work will be consigned following its tenure at the Cathedral. Both Viola and Newman immerse their audience in an awareness of this dual, hallowed atmosphere, challenging them to yield to a sense of spirituality that balances divinity with agnosticism. Together, their pieces bring a stillness and sense of wonder that feels a little like prayer.
Rupert Newman’s upcoming commissions will be shown at Milner Hall and the London Business School.
Bill Viola’s next commission at St. Paul’s, 'Mary', will be installed later this year.