Bill Viola’s Ocean without a shore, which takes its title from the Andalucian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), is about the threshold between life and death or, as the artist has commented: ‘the presence of the dead in our lives’. The installation is emblematic of Viola’s considered attention to human beings undergoing various states of transformation and renewal. In the installation three video screens become surfaces for the manifestation of images of the dead attempting to re-enter our world. According to Viola’s press statement for the Venice Biennale:
The video sequence describes the human form as it gradually coalesces from within a dark field and slowly comes into view, moving from obscurity into the light. As the figure approaches, it becomes more solid and tangible until it breaks through an invisible threshold and passes into the physical world. The crossing of the threshold is an intense moment of infinite feeling and acute physical awareness. Poised at that juncture, for a brief instant all beings can touch their true nature, equal parts material and essence. However, once incarnate, these beings must eventually turn away from mortal existence and return to the emptiness from where they came.
The physical threshold through which the figures pass is not a digital effect, but actually a sheet of cascading water. Ocean without a shore was a highlight of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 and has recently been acquired by the Gallery with the generous support of Loti Smorgon. It is on display on the ground floor at NGV International from December 2008 onwards.
Internationally recognised as a pioneer of video art, Bill Viola is considered one of the most important contemporary artists working in the medium today. He has been remarkably steadfast in his artistic explorations – universal human experience has been the focus of his work for over thirty-five years. Viola deals largely with the central themes of human consciousness and experience: birth, death, love and emotion. Throughout his career he has drawn meaning and inspiration from his deep interest in mystical traditions such as Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism and Islamic Sufism. The humanist spirituality that underpins his work is especially pronounced in Ocean without a shore, both in its exploration of the afterlife and the fact that it was originally installed in a religious context in the San Gallo chapel in Venice, a fifteenth-century church. In Venice Viola directly incorporated the church’s internal architecture into the installation, using three existing stone altars as recesses for video screens. For the installation at the NGV, the chapel will be evoked conceptually through the creation of an intimate space built within an exhibition gallery.
Alex Baker, Senior Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2008)