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

Previously at Media Arts Watch

What is Media Art?

Media Arts watch
Media art includes artworks that explore the technologies and aesthetics of film as well as the emerging tools and practices in the realms of video, computers, virtual reality, the internet, software, and mobile devices.

John G. Hanhardt

John G. Hanhardt
John G. Hanhardt is MAG’s consulting senior curator of media arts. Hanhardt began his museum career in the department of film and video at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and from there went to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to establish its film program and film study collection. From 1974 to 1996, he was curator and head of the film and video department at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He was the senior curator of film and media arts at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum from 1996 to 2006. He joined the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s staff in 2006, and was a consulting senior curator of film and media arts there until 2016.

As a native of Rochester and University of Rochester alum, Hanhardt was inspired by photography, film, and media arts during frequent visits to the George Eastman Museum and by the programming of the Visual Studies Workshop.


A conversation with Isaac Julien, fine artist and filmmaker who came from London to Rochester, NY for a visit with curator Jonathan Binstock and John Hanhardt. #MediaArtsWatch