United Kingdom

St Paul's Cathedral hopes for Tate visitors with Bill Viola plasma screen altarpieces

The works will be permanently installed in 2011

LONDON. St Paul's Cathedral is to erect plasma screen altarpieces by veteran US video artist Bill Viola.

Two giant multi-screen installations on the themes of Mary and the martyrs respectively are to be permanently installed in early 2011 behind the high altar on either side of the American chapel.

Canon Martin Warner, Treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral, says the new videos should attract some of the five million tourists who visit Tate Modern every year.

"Art today captures people's imagination in a way that perhaps narrative discourse doesn't," he says.

"The huge numbers of people that visit Tate on the opposite side of the Millennium Bridge from us are an indication of that fascination with...how you can express what is intangible but real and that comes very close to what Christian faith is all about," he says.

The new altarpieces are "under construction" and are likely to each consist of "three or four" 65-inch-screens according to Graham Southern of Viola's London gallery Haunch of Venison.

When they are finished, the screens will be mounted on hinged panels allowing them to be switched off and closed during services.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper about the new commission, Bill Viola said his video altarpieces would find their "right place" inside the church.

"You can't go in there fascistically and try to insert what you're doing in a clumsy forceful way. It's like music - you have to get in tune with the setting and the artistic idea. When they come together, that's very powerful," he said.

The cathedral is now raising funds for the production, installation, and maintenance of the plasma screens which could cost around £2m. An application for subsidy is expected to be made to The Arts Council.

"St Paul's has no external funding; we get no government funding and no central church funding. We just manage to cover the costs of running the cathedral as it is...so any art project is dependent on being grant funded and dependent on fund raising," says Canon Warner.

The cathedral, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built between 1675 and 1710, has already hosted temporary installations by living artists including Yoko Ono and Rebecca Horn.

It has also exhibited a video entitled The Messenger by Bill Viola which was originally produced for Durham Cathedral in 1996.

This showed a naked man slowly rising to the surface of water, opening his eyes and breathing, and then sinking back down again.

The "broad" response to The Messenger was "very positive", says Canon Warner who hopes the cathedral will raise sufficient funds to host a "rolling programme of art installations at St Paul's".

"We hope that there will be an annual turnover of something major that comes into the cathedral," he says adding that he does not rule out working with major British artists such as Damien Hirst.

"There is a range of contemporary artists today who are saying fascinating things in their art and we would never prejudge whether or not a proposal to include them in the floor of the cathedral would meet a positive or a negative response," he says.

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18 Apr 11
15:48 CET


Another example of the Church not realising how vile and jarring these sort of things are to the average punter. When surrounded by daft people who are as vapid and relativist as most modern church folk seem to be, how are the rest of the population and my fellow 'youves' ever supposed to look up to them, or even meet on some vaguely similar wavelength. It's all slightly pathetic and ever so slightly sad too.

31 Jul 10
7:46 CET


Just goes to show that the Church of England is clueless about the arts. Why doesn't it support the development of artists who share their faith instead of affirming a Zen Buddhist's take on its own faith story? The Church of England wants simply to sex-up the 'sacred' space. Its senses are aesthetically dead and it lacks commitment to artists who are christian and generally barred from 'secularised' spaces. "Stupid is, as stupid does I suppose", as a wise man once said!!

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