Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bill Viola, The Tristan Project and Interventions in the Architecture of Sacred Space

Bill Viola, Tristan's Ascension (2005) - Tristan Project, 2008. St Saviour's Church, Redfern

The installation of Bill Viola's Tristan Project in St Saviour's, Sydney in 2008 and St Carthage's Melbourne, 2010 dominates both sanctuaries with a large vertical screen onto which Firewoman, 2005 and Tristan's Ascension, 2005 are projected. The distinctively Romanesque revival architecture of St Saviour's Anglican, designed by architects A and C Blackett and built in 1885 is transformed into a theatrical space where the shallow chancel becomes the backdrop for Viola's artwork. St Carthage's Catholic Church has a similar plan with a slightly deeper chancel which is entirely obscured by the screen. Both installations are accompanied by Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk on an elaborate surround sound system and the installation at St Carthage's can only be seen between 7pm and 10pm, when the Church is in complete darkness. 
As stirring and meditative the experience of viewing these projections can be, it is both significant and perhaps even essential that the encounter takes place in an active sacred space. The invitation to view the work in the context of liturgical space carries an expectation that the beholder would fully participate in the ritual-architectural experience. This full participation requires that any encounter between architecture and beholder is prepared to leave both the space and the person changed. In the traditional model of ritual-architectural experience, the individual is immersed in liturgical action and multi-sensory experience which have the implicit intention of evoking a sense of being in the presence of God. Already the space anticipates the cooperation of individual, ritual and architecture in shaping an understanding of how God might be felt and understood and the treatment of immersion in fire and ascension in Viola's work intensifies this experience. The entire space is already charged with prayer, devotion and a spirituality that recognises the divine in the midst of our being. The issue that I take up with the work is the extent to which it sensitively integrates the liturgical function of the space and engages with the architecture. Sacred space does more than simply provide an alternative backdrop for the staging of an artwork, performance or time-based installation. The sanctuary is loaded with meaning as the height and summit of religious significance within the space and for both Anglicans and Catholics, is the holy residence of the Eucharist - the incarnate God made flesh. Any object placed in this space will by default be challenging or reaffirming the attention awarded to the Eucharist. The installation of the vertical screen conceals the location of the tabernacle in a similar manner to the iconostasis in Orthodox space - a screen which divides the nave from the sanctuary and amplifies the mystery of the divine. Traditionally, the entrance to the sanctuary in an Orthodox Church is flanked by icons of the Archangels, Saints and perhaps most commonly, the Annunciation. The distinct separation of the congregation from the liturgical space for the Eucharist and consecration is given by a narrative representation of the Gospel and depiction of the saints. Viola's projection of Firewoman and Tristan's Ascension also functions as a screen separating the two distinct spaces with the representation of a narrative. In the case of Tristan's Ascension, Viola's narrative takes the twelfth century myth of Tristan and Isolde, whose love was so profound that to be realised was for them both to transcend life itself. Fittingly, it is the theme of Wagner's epic three act opera from which extracts are taken for the soundscape in both Churches. Given the location of both screens, the work cannot avoid making a statement about the action that takes place at the altar. Rather than functioning as iconostasis or entrance to the sanctuary, the screen is a barrier. Viola's work would have been better served in the body of the church rather than the sanctuary and could possibly have been more sensitively integrated into the architectural fabric of the space. I am surprised that Viola has not explored the potential for projecting on semi-transparent screens or projecting adjusted and modified images directly onto the architecture.   

Bill Viola, Firewoman (2005) - Tristan Project, 2008. St Saviour's Church, Redfern, Sydney, Australia