Simon Willis is an editor at The Economist’s culture magazine Intelligent Life and a former associate editor of Granta.


Bill Viola’s Martyrs: Sleek, Glamorous, Empty

A view of Bill Viola’s video installation Martyrs (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) on display at St. Paul's Cathedral, London

Martyrs, a new work by the American video artist Bill Viola, is difficult to take as seriously as it takes itself. It is being shown as a permanent exhibit in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, just a few feet from the high altar, and is designed as a kind of altarpiece. Four plasma screens are arranged in a row on a sleek metal stand by the architect Norman Foster. Each screen shows a silent video, a little over seven minutes long, of a person undergoing a highly aestheticized ordeal involving, respectively, earth, air, fire, and water—all captured with sumptuous visual effects and all withstood in serene and saintly forbearance.