Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ, c1532-3. Right: Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005 by Bill Viola.

‘Divine muscular energy’: Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ, c1532-3. Right: Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005 by Bill Viola. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019; Bill Viola Studio

Ever since Bill Viola first pitched up in Florence as a 23-year-old film technician in 1974, there has been a certain inevitability that 45 years on he would end up here, sharing a mostly hushed and dimly lit Royal Academy with Michelangelo. Viola was in Italy back then working in a studio patronised by some of the pioneers of video art – including Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman – but he was also encountering for the first time the work of Renaissance painters face-to-face in the city’s churches, an experience that he later described as something like “total immersion” for him.

Along the way the two experiences – fresco and video, altarpiece and flatscreen – seemed to have fused in his imagination. Viola saw the possibility of recreating those 500-year-old visions of eternal truths for a contemporary audience – not in marble or paint or charcoal, but on screen. Since then, not a man to duck a challenge, he has foregrounded an ongoing dialogue with Florentine masters. This exhibition – 12 of Viola’s video installations, 15 works by Michelangelo – arises out of the American seeing the collection of the Italian’s drawings at Windsor Castle in 2006.

Viola’s screens invariably involve a challenge to the viewer. You may flock to see images of annunciations and resurrections from five centuries ago, they declare, and find yourselves awed by those profound mysteries painted large on walls and ceilings, so why not in our present moment? That challenge seems somehow a distinctly American question. It begs for the kind of heightened emotions that might be expected when, for example, you ascend to the no-expense-spared heights of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and discover there is no small-scale irony to orient yourself by.

The most spectacular, and representative, of Viola’s films here, Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), gives you a sense of what you are in for. It starts, typically, with a man in a white gown on a marble slab under a shower, which becomes a cataract as he slowly ascends, counterintuitively and presumably triumphantly, through water and darkness. If you are not sufficiently awed by the vision, be prepared to be nudged into the appropriate mood by signs on the RA walls that attest to the artist’s “deep preoccupations with the nature of the human soul”.

The Virgin and Child With the Infant St John the Baptist (the Taddei Tondo), c1504-5 by Michelangelo.
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 The Virgin and Child With the Infant St John the Baptist (the Taddei Tondo), c1504-5 by Michelangelo. Photograph: © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Those preoccupations get their most troubling examination in a room in which Viola’s Nantes Triptych faces off against the Taddei Tondo, that crowning glory of the Royal Academy’s permanent collection. Michelangelo’s circular marble depicts in relief the infant Christ shying away from the proffered hand of his playmate, John the Baptist, which holds a flapping songbird. Historians have suggested the bird to be a goldfinch – the same bird that was said to have removed a thorn from Christ’s head on the road to Calvary – and that his gesture of fear, his instinct to lie across his mother’s lap, contains in its outline a premonition of his death and the deposition from the cross.

Viola takes this triangular drama of death in life and glosses it over three screens on the wall opposite. On the left a woman kneels, cradled by her lavishly moustached husband, panting in the later stages of labour, her face in closeup seized by contractions, before eventually cradling a child. In the middle a man is captured in one of Viola’s trademark flotation tanks, treading water, clothes hanging loose about him. And in the third we are focused on the sunken face of a woman (the artist’s mother) struggling with her dying breaths on a hospital bed, the oxygen tube like an umbilical cord.

Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1992, right, opposite Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo at the Royal Academy.
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 Bill Viola’s Nantes Triptych, 1992, right, opposite Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo at the Royal Academy. Photograph: David Parry © Royal Academy of Arts

The first and last of the films, privately poignant, are made voyeuristic by having them perform as symbols in this clunky narrative. The central panel is the most revealing of Viola’s abiding difficulty, however. When faced with the challenge of depicting life – that invariably fascinating state between the birth and death – he finds himself never able to offer much more than images of suspended animation. In the Taddei Tondo, the fragment of believable experience involving the infants and the captive bird, Michelangelo captured in stone something both fleetingly human and irresistibly alive. If life only involves holding one’s breath under water – as we are invited to imagine of the central figure in Viola’s Triptych, or, for that matter, the eight fully-clothed “Dreamers” submerged on film in another in another room – death quickly comes to seem quite a welcome release.

Set side by side with Michelangelo, Viola’s work seems to want to reduce it to the broadest of “life lessons”. It’s a treat to be able to see the wall of drawings of mythological scenes by Michelangelo in the subsequent room, each mark on paper detailing the kind of divine muscular energy that Blake so envied in his take on those drawings; it is not quite clear, though, what is achieved by having them opposite Viola’s pair of films of a naked older man and woman exploring their crevices and sags with handheld flashlights. It would be nice to imagine you were being invited to smile at the contrast, but you can’t help feeling that something graver is required. The comparison seems designed to diminish both artists’ preoccupations, but particularly the Italian’s. Michelangelo may, like Viola, have been preoccupied with mortality, but only because he treasured all the infinite possibility of bodies alive.

The Reflecting Pool, 1977-9 by Bill Viola.
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 The Reflecting Pool, 1977-9 by Bill Viola. Photograph: Bill Viola Studio

When Viola tries to imagine living states, they tend to quickly resolve into elemental melodramas of fire and water. The earliest piece in this show, The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), is in many ways the most interesting because it is the most tentative. Unlike the high production sheen of Viola’s later work, it has a handheld, Kodachrome look; a fixed camera dwells on a figure beside a green pool, which comes and goes in the flesh and in ghostly traces of reflection. His two-channel colour projection The Veiling (1995) resists that fixed vantage, leaving a flicker of images of faces and bodies on five hanging layers of cloth in the centre of the room, a sort of layered magic lantern hinting, not entirely convincingly, at the mystery of consciousness.

It is no surprise that as these more opaque meditations hardened into the more full-frontal, life-and-death symbolism of Viola’s later work, he should find himself commissioned to make altarpieces. His Martyrs (2014), a four-screen video of figures beset by earth, wind and fire (and plenty of water) in St Paul’s Cathedral, was the first moving-image work of art to be permanently installed in a British cathedral. The Messenger (1996), another figure dramatically and repeatedly coming up for air, originally commissioned by Durham Cathedral, is included here. Viola has suggested that the films could “function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”.

You wonder how well such works will fare over time; if cathedral-goers will be contemplating Viola-style film walls half a millennia from now, our digital answer to sculpture and stained glass. One thing working against that proposition seems the fact that even in the years that Viola has been working in his medium, much of his scale and dramatic language has been appropriated beyond the gallery. Perhaps wisely, Viola’s work chooses not to acknowledge the ways in which his repertoire of flame and waterfall and the profound musculature of the male form is now familiarly employed on the sides of skyscrapers in the service of aftershave and Y-fronts.

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