Bill Viola’s Ocean without a shore, which takes its title from the Andalucian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), explores the threshold between life and death, or as the artist has stated, ‘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. 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 originally installed in a 15th century chapel for the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 and directly incorporated the church’s internal architecture by using three existing stone alters as recesses for video screens. For the installation at the National Gallery of Victoria, the chapel is evoked conceptually through the creation of an intimate space built within an exhibition gallery.
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.
The work was inspired by a poem by 20th 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’ree 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.
Pre-Columbian Antiquities, Level G