Art: Life’s much too short

    It was a Bill Viola piece featuring six portraits of the same grizzled old guy girning his way through a range of big emotions — fear, joy, anger, sorrow were the most obvious — with an actory fierceness that Stanislavsky himself might have envied. The guy in the video was wearing a black scoop-neck, his background was black, and against all this theatrical off-Broadway blackness, the six heads gleamed as whitely as an arrangement of eggs in a half-dozen box. His hair was cropped, too, so the egg analogy is even fairer.

    Now, I knew the National Gallery was about to open an ambitious Bill Viola show in the week ahead. What I did not know, and was surprised to discover, was that the show had already sneaked out of the gallery’s main exhibition rooms and begun colonising the collection proper. This realisation triggered a shudder in me, not of pleasant expectation, but of genuine dread. The little Dutch boy had taken his finger out of the dyke, and my children and I were witnessing the first spurts of the invading waters. The problem was not that contemporary art was usurping the terrain of the old masters. The problem was that the old masters were now in a position ruthlessly to show up contemporary art. And so it proved.

    I can, of course, see exactly why, from its point of view, it is a good idea for the National Gallery to mount a display of video art by Bill Viola, the first such display of ambitious contemporary techno-aesthetics attempted by the old lady of Trafalgar Square. Putting on Bill Viola performs a handful of useful tasks. First among these is the signalling of a fresh spirit of contemporaneity at the gallery. Viola is hardly a thrusting young art kid on the block — the man’s 53, and even when he was considerably younger, he was already a middle-aged computer nerd — but as an aggressive user of high-spec digital technologies, he stands, rather bluntly, for new developments in art.

    With such an artist on site, the gallery would hope to feel younger, brighter. People inject Botox into their wrinkles for similar reasons. These days, contemporary art is also better for business than old masters. It attracts bigger and younger crowds. It offers more spectacle, demands less education and has grown ever so adept at supplying the circus quotient of the bread-and-circuses equation. There’s tons of it out there as well. All in all, it offers an immeasurably easier path to exhibition-making; and the only real downside is that professional sourpusses such as Disgusted W J of Highgate will go to their graves insisting that video art can never achieve a true art experience because it takes hours and hours to achieve closure, while old masters do not.

    Bill Viola, it should be admitted, has become the most obviously old-masterish of video artists. It’s an effect he works on ponderously, and seems rather to crave. The last big selection of his work I visited, in New York in 1998, contained huge multiscreen assemblages of revolving digital projections: cosmic echo chambers filled with ghostly oil drums with flickering TVs in them; torture chairs on which you sat and witnessed shocking denouements on the screen ahead. It was an exceptionally physical, noisy, grand, inventive, thrilling and above all mysterious spectacle.

    This one isn’t. It consists almost exclusively of painting-sized LCD screens framed in black, attached primly to the wall at old-master heights, all of which feature the human figure moving in excruciatingly slow slo-mo. Some pieces feature atmospheric throbbing and moaning in their soundscapes, and there’s the odd stereo roar or two to be savoured. But in general, the sought-for effects are ever so polite. Very obviously, this is high-spec digital technology mimicking the timeless rhythms and presences of old-master art.

    The first big screen you see is a slo-mo re-creation of Pontormo’s Visitation, featuring three robed women coming together on a fake Renaissance square. What Pontormo achieves instantly — a mysterious meeting of women — takes a large chunk of the day in Viola’s electro-quote, where the slo-mo drags even by slo-mo standards. Inside the show proper, piece after piece takes an eternity to complete itself, as the tearful portraiture of the Virgin lamenting the death of her son, or the accusatory gaze of the dying Christ, are acted out by earnest Californian method actors.

    There are surprises. But staying in the room long enough to witness them takes lots of determination and a helluva lunch hour. Two figures gazing sternly out at us turn out to be reflections in water that shatter when the figures making them dip slowly forward into the pool. And imagine the shock felt by two more of Viola’s faux-Renaissance Marys sitting by a wellhead when a naked Christ clambers out of the depths behind them to achieve a video resurrection.

    I was interested to read in the catalogue that it was the exhausting experience of hauling around his ambitious 1998 retrospective that persuaded Viola to aim for the extreme simplicity prioritised here. Moving the 1998 show from city to city sounds like the Rolling Stones on tour. So, afterwards, Viola got himself a research grant from the awesomely rich Getty Foundation in LA, and spent it at the Getty Museum, developing an obsession with early Renaissance art. Two of its features in particular attracted him: its portability and the depth of emotion it sought to convey.

    The show’s opening vestibule contains a selection of ancient paintings and artefacts that Viola has picked deliberately to illuminate his own ambitions. There’s an Edo- period Noh mask from Japan, borrowed from the British Museum, which hints stealthily at the concentration of facial expression that Viola favours. And a weeping Mary and sorrowful Christ by Dieric Bouts are clearly the models for the many emoting video Marys and anxious digi-Christs in the slow, dark show ahead. The obvious irony is that Viola would surely be better off showing somewhere else. His effects here are too obviously lifted from their surroundings. I could see immediately that the six heads on the screen upstairs were the digital equivalent of a sheet of old-master drawings on which the artist has tried out a variety of expressions, while the clunky device of hingeing together two LCD screens so that they mimic the wooden pairing of mother and son in the Dieric Bouts diptych is frankly ludicrous. Only in California could the act of attaching a medieval hinge to a pair of computer screens pass for profundity.

    If Bill Viola at the National Gallery is a dirge, the treasure trove unveiled for us in Saved!, at the newly reopened Hayward Gallery, is a cause for noisy celebration. The show brings together some of the masterpieces “saved” for the nation in the past 100 years by the activities of the National Art Collections Fund. Not just great paintings but clocks, teapots, silver, gold, African art, Chinese art: if something precious is about to be sold abroad, the NACF leaps into action to stop it happening. So far the fund has “saved” 500,000 works of art.

    The magnificent exhibition that celebrates this relentless good work is packed to the rafters with exquisite things. The Rokeby Venus is here, alongside paintings by Rembrandt, Titian, Botticelli. One type of pleasure is to be gained from hopping excitingly from genre to genre and era to era. Another comes from looking at the prices and seeing how little got you so much in the old days.