Where church and art meet

Bill Viola installation at St Carthage's

St Carthage's Church - a unique exhibiting space

ACMI’s Assistant Curator Kate Warren discusses the dual-site Bill Viola exhibitions currently installed at St Carthage’s Catholic Church (Parkville) and ACMI.

Last week, I was driving down Sydney Road in Brunswick with some friends, on our way to play indoor soccer. As we passed a number of different churches, I caught myself saying, ‘That one is a Catholic Church, this one is a Uniting Church. See that one over there, it’s Anglican. But the one coming on the left is Baptist.’

I never thought that as part of my work at ACMI I would develop such a detailed knowledge of inner-Melbourne churches and their denominations! However, in researching and preparing for our current exhibitions involving American artist Bill Viola, I spent countless afternoons travelling from parish to parish, trying to find the perfect venue. As a result, I now often find myself navigating the city according to its various churches.

To realise this exciting project, ACMI partnered with Melbourne International Arts Festival as well as Kaldor Public Art Projects, who had previously shown these two Bill Viola artworks – Fire Woman (2005) and Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall) (2005) – in 2008 at St Saviour’s Church in Redfern, Sydney.

Bill Viola originally created these pieces as part of a much larger project, collaborating with director Peter Sellars on a production of Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde. Viola created more than three hours of visual imagery that accompanied the theatrical production. Some of the video material from the opera was then reworked to create a series of independent artworks.

When trying to find a Melbourne venue for Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension, there were many considerations to bear in mind. The first and most important was: Would the 5.8 metre tall screen fit? For many churches I visited, the immediate answer was no. Yet, this was merely the first of many questions that needed to be asked: Where could we place the projector? Was the church the right length to accommodate the projector’s throw? Was the church’s shape and architecture suitable? Was the church easily accessible by public transport and the disabled? What were the light levels like inside the church and would it be dark enough at night? Was there adequate seating? Could we suspend rigging from the ceiling if needed? Would the church and its parishioners support such a project?

So many questions, not always with straightforward answers. After a lengthy search, visiting dozens of churches within inner Melbourne, we eventually decided on St Carthage’s Catholic Church in Parkville, which sits opposite the University of Melbourne on Royal Parade. St Carthage’s Parish Priest, Fr. Michael Elligate, has been there for over twenty years, and his unwavering support and enthusiasm for the project allowed us to transform the church into a video art shrine.

When installing artworks in a traditional gallery there are certain things you can usually take for granted: easily accessible power sources; flexible rigging for projectors and screens; ample space for didactic labels; stable lighting conditions. In a venue such as a church, clearly not designed to host contemporary video artworks, you need a fair amount of flexibility and creativity!

Lead by ACMI’s Media Technologies Manager Mark Bollenberg, our team worked with Bill Viola and his wife and creative partner Kira Perov to refine the installation and the presentation of the artworks within this unusual space. They faced every challenge and unexpected obstacle with skill, expertise, precision and humour!

Bill Viola installation - preparing the screen

Preparing the screen

It was all hands on deck when the screen was raised and secured above the church’s altar, with our time-lapse camera capturing the exciting moment.

Bill Viola installation

Fits like a glove

The delicate processes of image and sound balancing were completed over two nights. Fuelled with chocolate, nuts and snacks we watched and waited as the sun went down and Bill Viola’s artworks began to come alive in their beautiful surroundings.

Bill Viola installation

Bill and Mark make some final adjustments. Photo: Kira Perov

The moment when we turned on the sound for Fire Woman literally took everyone’s breath away, as the intensity of the image and sound became apparent. We may have also startled a few curious passers-by in the process! Yet as soon as image and sound began emanating from St Carthage’s people were immediately drawn towards it, slightly perplexed but undeniably captivated.

Bill Viola's Fire Woman

Fire Woman on display inside St Carthage’s. Photo: Kira Perov

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to present an exhibition in such a unique space, however Bill Viola’s incredible artworks feel as if they were made especially for St Carthage’s. They seem at home there. One of Viola’s next major projects is to create two permanent altar pieces for London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. I know that I’ll be jumping on a plane to see this next year.

Bill Viola: Fire Woman and Tristan’s Ascension is currently on display at St Carthage’s Church as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Make sure you catch it before it closes on Saturday 23 October.

You can also see Bill Viola: The Raft in ACMI’s Gallery 2 until Sunday 20 February, 2011. If you missed Bill Viola’s inspiring In Conversation event at ACMI, it will be broadcast on host Rachael Kohn’s radio program The Spirit of Things on Radio National, Sunday 24 October at 6pm.

Fire Woman, 2005
Video/sound installation, 11:12 minutes
Performer: Robin Bonaccorsi

Tristan’s Ascension (The Sound of a Mountain Under a Waterfall), 2005
Video/sound installation, 10:16 minutes
Performer: John Hay

The Raft, May 2004
Video/sound installation, 10:33 minutes

On loan from Bill Viola Studio

Presented by Melbourne International Arts Festival, Kaldor Public Art Projects and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image

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