Apollo Magazine

The soft approach to public art

What makes a good work of public art? The success of Bill Viola's 'Martyrs' suggests that a sense of sincerity and tradition can win people round to contemporary formats

Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) (2014), Bill Viola. St Paul's Cathedral. Photo: Peter Mallet

Bill Viola’s new work in St Paul’s Cathedral, Martyrs, has been widely praised, perceived as ‘return to form’ or tour-de-force by a master of the genre. Martyrs has been permanently installed in a building that is, foremost, a centre of Christian spirituality. But St Paul’s Cathedral is also an architectural masterpiece, and a major part of London’s history; a place towards which all Britons might feel a sense of ownership, regardless of their spiritual or secular affiliation. Much of Martyrs’ force could be attributed to its invocation of aspects of the human experience that are both deeply meaningful, and non-denominational.

One of the points sometimes made about Viola is that his work possesses a sincerity rarely present (and seldom successful) in most contemporary art. But is it actually so unusual? And, maybe more importantly, does a sense of sincerity contribute to the resonance of an artwork across a broader audience?

I would argue that Viola’s engagement with the visual language of Christianity (the panelled altarpiece format; the depiction of figures with whom we are encouraged to identify) acts as a crucial gesture of good faith. Not only does it help to integrate a new media work into a traditional, old media environment, but the use of recognisable formal elements is also a deft way of helping those who may not have much experience with contemporary art – particularly video – to see that this work has something to say to them as well.

Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North is another work that has benefitted from its willingness to engage with visual traditions, while remaining a distinctly contemporary piece of sculpture. Described by Gormley as a commemoration of the north’s industrial past and a symbolic face towards a future in the information age, the angel’s cultural resonance was underlined by the recent outcry that resulted from Morrisons projecting an enormous baguette onto the artwork’s 54-metre wingspan.

In contrast, Damien Hirst’s champion of Truth and Justice, Verity, stands sentry on the beach of Ilfracombe in North Devon – radically spiritual in her themes, and arguably far less successful. Her installation in 2012 on the small town’s waterfront drew mixed reactions from locals, many of whom were put off by the fact that the pregnant female figure is depicted on one side without skin, exposing a fibrous web of muscle, bone, and her growing fetus. This formal subversion of artistic tradition challenged popular expectations that a culture’s most beautiful values can be embodied and affirmed in a beautiful figure or work of art. Hirst’s departure from such conventions was perceived as a gratuitous flourish – an indulgence of the artist at the expense of those in the town.

It is a fine line to walk – to create public art that operates spiritually while transcending religious or secular affiliation, all while functioning within the dialogue of contemporary art. One of the criticisms of Martyrsvoiced on these pages by Digby Warde-Aldam – is that it is drowned out by its location, that it fails to resonate amid the gilt and stone splendour of Wren’s masterwork. I would argue that the work’s strength lies in its ‘quiet’. Martyrs may not brandish a sword like Hirst’s Verity, but maybe because it walks softly, its carries more spiritual clout.

Related Articles

Review: Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’ at St Paul’s Cathedral (Digby Warde-Aldam)

Advert Averse: Anger as Morrisons turns the Angel of the North into a billboard (Maggie Gray)

Modern art is not the enemy of religious art – it’s revived it (Richard Harries)

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