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This article is taken from PN Review 248, Volume 45 Number 6, July - August 2019.

Almost Drowning
Bill Viola / Michelangelo: Life, Death, Rebirth, the Royal Academy, 26 January – 31 March 2019
Helen Tookey
In Viola’s work, water recurs as a metaphor for life and being, for transition between states and for transcendence. As a child the artist almost drowned, an experience he would later recall as ‘blissful’, marked by a beautiful intensity that was streaked with rays of light.


Almost a casual statement, coming as it does in the very last paragraph of the text in the exhibition flyer. But it makes absolute sense of everything, in a new way – the entire body of work the exploration of this experience.

As a child the artist almost drowned. In Dreamers, the most compelling dreamer is the child. The young girl, her eyes closed, her arms peacefully at her sides, her brown-gold hair floating out in clouds around her head, like pale gold waterweed. All the other dreamers are adults. She is the only child, it seems that she has accepted before her time this strange calm underwater sleep, and we want to know what it is she is dreaming.

Strangely, I had seen Viola’s dreamers – or something very like them – inside an actual dream of my own, before I had encountered his work. I transcribed the dream-scene:

She brings you to the ponds, where the people are lying calmly under the water. They are women, children, men – whole families. […]
Looking up through the water and the starry weeds, they must see a green world. A floating arch, studded with brilliant stars that waver in their green sky. […]
When it ...


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