Video art guru Bill Viola is touring the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy in Madrid surrounded by a sea of cameras, clicks and journalists. Suddenly, he stops, and so does his entourage. He points to Alonso Cano's Christ on the Cross (1640), so dazzling that it seems backlit by thousands of tiny light bulbs, and waves his hands, before whispering to the museum director: "That... That... What a marvel!"
It takes a few seconds for Viola to return to reality. "I want to stay here. I am going to build a little house in the corner," he jokes.
If he can't, his works at least will stay, for the time being. The four installations that make up the exhibition Bill Viola [en diálogo] are set to remain among the masterpieces, chatting with them, until March 30. Created between 2000 and 2001, the pieces attempt to bridge the gap between the centuries that separate them from their predecessors to reflect not their style, but their spirit. Their characters, trapped by an interminably slow camera, cry like Pietas, hide in mysterious Velázquez-style shadows and even attain the rapture of a Saint Teresa. All in high definition.
"There has always been a separation between them and us," the 62-year-old artist explains. "And we are wrong to see art as something linear. The classics will be here long after we have gone.
"When I was a student I thought about the future, not the past. I still couldn't understand who the masters were and what place they occupied in history. Then my mother died." He goes on to explain his conversion, how his world of pixels collapsed, standing between Pedro de Mena's bust of Dolorosa and his own work of the same title, a video diptych in which a man and a woman silently cry their eyes out. "I learned there was something beyond technology. The value of life. The mystery of being part of something greater than ourselves."
Nevertheless, Viola is greater than most of his contemporaries. The academy is not used to the kind of visitor numbers it suspects he will attract, especially following the recent premiere of Tristan and Isolde, for which he has created video works, at Madrid's Teatro Real. Project director Javier Blas is worried: "Those who come to see Goya are going to come together with those who come to see him. We need to see how we can deal with the public; we don't know what might happen."
Bill Viola [en diálogo]. Until March 30 at Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, C/ Alcalá 13, Madrid. www.realacademiabellasartessanfernando.com