Bill Viola, Ocean Without a Shore, 2007. 3-channel High Definition Video/Sound Installation. Production stills. Copyright: Bill Viola 2007. Photo: Kira Perov. Courtesy: Haunch of Venison.
Every person I know who has had the good fortune to attend the Venice Biennale has remarked on the emotional power of the video installation by Bill Viola, called Ocean Without a Shore.
The work was inspired by a poem by the twentieth century Senegalese poet and storyteller Birago Diop:
Hearing things more than beings,
listening to the voice of fire,
the voice of water.
Hearing in wind the weeping bushes,
sighs of our forefathers.
The dead are never gone:
they are in the shadows.
The dead are not in earth:
they’re in the rustling tree,
the groaning wood,
water that runs,
water that sleeps;
they’re in the hut, in the crowd,
the dead are not dead.
The dead are never gone,
they’re in the breast of a woman,
they’re in the crying of a child,
in the flaming torch.
The dead are not in the earth:
they’re in the dying fire,
the weeping grasses,
they’re in the forest, they’re in the house,
the dead are not dead.
The Tate did a wonderful video interview with Viola on site at the installation, which you can see and hear here.
Bill Viola made this statement about the work in May 2007:
Ocean Without a Shore is about the presence of the dead in our lives. The three stone altars in the church of San Gallo become portals for the passage of the dead to and from our world. Presented as a series of encounters at the intersection between life and death, the video sequence documents a succession of individuals slowly approaching out of darkness and moving into the light. Each person must then break through an invisible threshold of water and light in order to pass into the physical world. Once incarnate however, all beings realise that their presence is finite and so they must eventually turn away from material existence to return from where they came. The cycle repeats without end.
Text © Bill Viola 2007
And Curator David Anfam said this in his introduction to the work:
From the early 1970s onwards, Bill Viola (b.1951) has created a rich array of videotapes, architectural video set-pieces, works for television and diverse tableaux involving electronic sound and other new media. Indeed, during these years Viola and his long-time collaborator Kira Perov have played a major role in transforming video from a scientific invention into an emotive aesthetic language.
On the one hand, Viola has utilised the most cutting-edge resources to craft his statements. Here he suggests a modern artistic lineage — from the Bauhaus onwards — that has embraced technology. On the other, Viola puts such hardware to the service of a spiritual vision aiming to convey fundamental human states: love, hope, sorrow, anxiety, being, death, regeneration. In this regard, Viola extends the tradition of Abstract Expressionism and of, say, Mark Rothko, who remarked that he was “interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on”. Overall, Viola thus manipulates precise objective means to explore metaphysical subjectivity. The outcome is a potent fusion of timelessness and immediacy, of formal accomplishment and numinous content. Underlying Viola’s odyssey is a meditation upon outer semblances and inward reality. As the artist notes, “I go out with a video camera, but I’m not just interested in shooting a tree or a car as they are. They are surface appearances of something really deep… That’s why I bend and stretch time, because it reveals those other dimensions.” Since video is a time-driven medium grounded in a constantly mobile physical process (unlike photography and film which depend upon a static single image or frame), Viola has made temporality one of his central preoccupations. This reflects the existential fact — at least as old as the thought of the pre-Socratic sage Heraclitus and as modern as the philosophy of Martin Heidegger or the dizzying spatio-temporal vistas of the information age — that we ineluctably live in time. Viola continues to ponder this condition from multiple standpoints. They have ranged from The Reflecting Pool (1977-79), in which a man, motion and water enact a play of emergence and dissolution; the dialectic between nature’s terrifying tumult and a mind’s inner tranquillity in Room for St. John of the Cross (1983); a trialogue of mortality, stasis and birth in the Nantes Triptych (1992); and the 2006 exhibition titled Love/Death: The Tristan Project (2006), that blends images of fire, water, light and darkness with sound into a sensory Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total artwork” of engulfing scale.
Taking its title from the Andalucian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), Ocean Without a Shore develops themes that have long populated Viola’s imagination into a new synthesis. The architecture of the work’s site — the intimate proportions and simple spaces of the Fifteenth century Church of the Oratorio San Gallo in Venice — is an integral part of its visual fabric. With its figures shifting from tenebrous voids into radiance and back, Ocean Without a Shore also touches the crux of Viola’s world: the sentient self and its manifold rites of passage.
Text © Art Ex 2007