The Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, 500 University Ave., will exhibit its latest acquisition and exhibition in its three-year Media Arts Watch program, “Bill Viola: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)” on Oct. 11-July 2018.
MAG is the only institution, public or private, in the U.S. to own this ambitious installation, which is regarded as one of the artist’s most powerful and significant works to date.
Originally commissioned by London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, and unveiled in 2014, “Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)” is composed of four HD, flat-screen monitors, each featuring a single figure who sustains the impact of one of the four classical elements. The four moving images are synchronized and unfold together to create a coherent whole.
“Martyrs” is rooted in art historical and religious iconography.
“The Greek word for martyr originally meant ‘witness,’” Viola said. “In today’s world, the mass media turns us all into witnesses to the suffering of others. The martyrs’ past lives of action can help illuminate our modern lives of inaction. They also exemplify the human capacity to bear pain, hardship and even death in order to remain faithful to their values, beliefs and principles. This piece represents ideas of action, fortitude, perseverance, endurance and sacrifice.
John G. Hanhardt, consulting senior curator of media art at MAG, is known as an expert in Viola’s work.
“Bill is a pioneer of the video medium, and one of the most important artists in the world today,” Hanhardt said. “To be able to bring one of his most extraordinary works to Rochester is a privilege and an honor.”
“Martyrs” has received wide acclaim in the U.K. It was installed at St. Paul’s Cathedral, where it is permanently located above the tomb of the cathedral’s architect, Sir Christopher Wren.
“‘Martyrs’ is a destination work of art; it’s worth making a special trip,” said Jonathan Binstock, MAG director. “It communicates directly, simply and with great intensity to people of all generations and backgrounds. ‘Martyrs’ makes an especially resonant addition to MAG’s encyclopedic collection, bringing our narrative of 5,000 years of artistic creativity into the present in exciting ways.”
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