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Tag: Mark Oakley

Bill Viola meets Michelangelo


Last summer, Mark Oakley, who was at that stage still Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral before his move to Cambridge, invited me to the cathedral to see the two Bill Viola installations/films there. ‘Martyrs: Earth, Air, Fire, Water’, was installed in the cathedral in 2014.  Set across four vertical plasma screens, it depicts four individuals being martyred by the four elements. The work is silent and deeply moving.

The second video, ‘Mary’, was installed in the cathedral in 2016, and is a celebration of women, using depictions of Everywoman. I found both artworks extremely moving, so jumped at the opportunity to visit the Royal Academy last week for their exhibition, ‘Bill Viola and Michelangelo: Life Death Rebirth’.


Despite mixed reviews, the exhibition did not disappoint. The main exhibits were by Bill Viola, but they were accompanied by a number of small drawings by Michelangelo. Both artists, of course, demonstrate the beauty and power of the human body, particularly the male body. Michelangelo’s specific meditations on the Resurrection become, in Viola’s work, celebrations of both transformation and physical rising.

The exhibits moved us from room to room, in darkness, so that we could appreciate the large videos that were playing. We watched a man emerging from water and disappearing into woodland, again and again. This theme recurred later, and in this second instance there was even a moment of humour, as the man leaped up to bomb into the water, but did not descend. Instead he remained in his tucked position suspended in air above the water until he faded and disappeared
Fire also makes an appearance, but even the fierce flames of that film eventually transmute into water. 
In another room, there was a triptych of three huge  screens side by side. In the first a woman was giving birth, in the third an elderly woman (apparently Viola’s mother) was on her deathbed, and in between there was a floating body, which to me suggested the state of swimming in amnion. Although I have given birth myself, this was the first time I had watched the process from the other end, and it was so mesmeric that no one in the room moved until the child was eventually born.

The theme of water is so universally present in these works that it almost appears to be an obsession, but it is clearly a metaphor both for life and also for transcendence. Walking through the semi-darkness, watching the videos, some of which take around a quarter of an hour to play, one is transported into Viola’s world and receives a glimpse of his spiritual awareness. The cleansing of one’s normal attention also made the Michelangelo drawings that much more striking, as one became conscious of the way in which the artist conveys so much of the important essence of the figures with so few strokes of the brush or pen, whether it be a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion, the risen Christ (pictured right) or the tenderness of a nativity scene.

Before I went into the exhibition, a couple of men in the café told me that they had got round it in 10 minutes. I was therefore surprised to find myself still in the darkened rooms after an hour an a half; and even more surprised to find that the images, and Bill Viola’s meditation on life and transcendence, travelled with me when I left.

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Ways with Words 2018

Most of you probably know that I am a huge fan of Ways with Words, the literature and ideas festival that’s held at Dartington Hall in Devon every July. It was started in 1991 by Kay Dunbar and Steve Bristow, who ran it every year until they took a back seat this year, handing it on to their fantastic staff, Leah, Jane and Phil, to keep up the good work


I again enjoyed chairing some of the events. As long as one does the homework properly, ie reads the books and thinks about how to introduce the speakers and ask some pertinent questions, this is great fun. I thought I’d tell you a little about two of the events that I chaired, and the Oversteps Day I organise and chair each year.

Sean Borodale‘s last collection, ‘Bee Journal’, was sheer joy to someone like me who kept bees for many years. His new book, ‘Asylum’, takes a subject that is likely to be more challenging for anyone with an aversion to being underground. The whole audience was also particularly sensitive to the theme of speleology, as we were meeting on the very day that the divers in Thailand were attempting (successfully, we were relieved to hear) to rescue the boys who had been trapped in a flooded cave for nearly a fortnight.

‘Asylum’ is based on the thirty miles of subterranean caves, mines and quarries of the Mendip Hills. Never would I have imagined that the ground below our feet is full of poetry; but having read ‘Asylum’, I can vouch for the fact that it is. Sean’s poetry is muscular, honest and uncompromising — and I recommend it highly.

Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral, though he will be moving at the end of next month, to take up the post of Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge. He is also a poetry-lover, with a keen ear and discriminating mind. In his recent book, ‘The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry’, he has selected and presented twenty-nine poems, from all ages and in all forms, in each case then going on to a wide-ranging discussion of the work, his response to it, and his personal and faith journey. It makes riveting reading, and because practically all the poems are ones I have loved for years, reading it was like meeting up with old friends and forming an even deeper acquaintance with them.

The poems Mark chose are certainly not all, in any obvious sense, religious; and some of them would be considered by some people to come into the ‘difficult’ category. But, accompanied by Mark’s wit and wisdom, no one could fail to enjoy and be inspired by this anthology and the essays following the poems. This was borne out by the fact that there was a long queue at the signing tent after the talk; and I reckon that practically everyone who attended the event was moved to go straight to Waterstones to buy Mark’s book and get him to sign it.

Because of the stunning weather all week, it looked as though some of the audience numbers were slightly down this year, probably because of the temptation of sandy beaches and cooling sea not very far away. That was not the case, however, with the Oversteps Day, at which we had larger audiences than ever, and as the room filled up for the first session, we had to go out in search of extra chairs to accommodate everyone.
In the two morning sessions, ‘A Warm Welcome’ and ‘Too Good to Lose’, I introduced the poets whose books had been published by Oversteps this past year, including some who had also published with us before. Included in these morning readings were Paul Surman, Ian Royce Chamberlain, Melanie Brandon, Rebecca Bilkau (pictured reading above), Hilary Elfick, Sue Proffitt and Jane Spiro. Then in the afternoon we had two themed events: ‘Once upon a time’ and ‘Where on earth?’, at which the morning readers were joined by Jennie Osborne, Christopher North, Susan Taylor, Simon Williams and myself.

The audiences were enthusiastic about the day, several claiming that, although the Oversteps Day is always enjoyable and inspiring, this was the best one yet. I am therefore truly grateful to all the poets who read so well, to the audiences for their appreciation and applause, and to the staff at Ways with Words for granting us this wonderful platform each year, on which to share some of the best of contemporary poetry.

Now I’m looking forward to Ways by the Water, the sister festival that takes place in the Lake District in March each year.

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