Media Arts Watch

Bill Viola: Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water)
October 11, 2017–July 2018

Originally commissioned by London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and unveiled in 2014, Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) by Bill Viola (American, b. 1951) consists of four high-definition 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. MAG is the only institution, public or private, in the U.S. to own this ambitious installation, which is regarded internationally as one of the artist’s most powerful and significant works to date.

Martyrs is overtly rooted in art historical and religious iconography. Viola has shared his inspiration for the work: “The Greek word for martyr originally meant ‘witness.’ 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, MAG’s consulting senior curator of media art, is renowned as an expert in the work of Viola. According to Hanhardt, “Bill is a pioneer of the video medium and one of the most important artists in the world today.” He continues, “To be able to bring one of his most extraordinary works to Rochester is a privilege and an honor.” Hanhardt recently wrote a monograph on the artist, published by Thames and Hudson (2016), and is now working on an exhibition of his art for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.

read the press release

shown above:
Bill Viola
Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water), 2014
Color high-definition video on four flat-panel displays
Each display 49 inches
Duration: 7:10 minutes
Marion Stratton Gould Fund, 2017.1

Sponsored by the Gallery Council of the Memorial Art Gallery

Photos by Kira Perov