Bill Viola's million dollar video artwork 'Ocean without a shore'

Art Press Release from Australia. Published by Rebecca Gabrielle Cannon on Friday 06 February 2009.

"Ocean without a shore" is a video installation by the internationally renowned video artist Bill Viola. Featured at the 2007 Venice Biennale, it was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 2008 as the first acquisition of the hefty Loti and Victor Smorgon Fund.

Colin Drucker went along to see just what kind of video one million dollars will get you. NB. If you prefer to see an artwork yourself before reading about it, click play on the embedded video. The installation is on display at the National Gallery of Victoria until December 2009.)

We’ve come to understand going into “the light” as a sort of rite of passage to death. Perhaps it’s born out of the idea that with death-and freedom from the inherent limits of humanity-comes a sort of clarity. Behind that light, surely, is the meaning of life.

Video artist Bill Viola, though, suggests not just otherwise with his Ocean Without a Shore installation, but that the meaning may be less compelling than we believe. He certainly doesn’t answer the question; if anything, he makes it more complex.

“[A]ll beings,” Viola’s thesis suggests, “realise [once incarnate] 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.”

The “light,” though, in Viola’s work is not death; this great clarity is life itself. Brief, limited, often disappointing, sometimes frustrating, ultimately small: life is but a few minutes in a great eternity of time. Viola serves to not reveal a reason for it all, but more to expose the nature of the experience.

The installation, in a conceptual sense, does not appear complex. In turns that last an average of three to four minutes on one of three screens, two dozen people (including Viola himself in one segment) approach slowly from behind a wall of rushing water. They are hazy and ethereal in grainy gray tones, before finally stepping through the water and coming into color and life. There is something vulnerable and striking merely in seeing each person arrive in front of us water-logged, slightly dazed, tentative in their movements. It is like seeing a newborn child arrive into the world.

Each person we meet tells a story without saying a thing. You want them to speak; you want to know the sadness behind their eyes, or what sparks the fleeting smile on their lips, or what it is about the world they find so fascinating, confusing, or beautiful in these moments you have together. One of the most incredible aspects of the piece is the way a single glance or gesture can carry the weight of a thousand unspoken words. This is a credit to the cast and surely Viola’s direction.

Eventually, the inevitability of death arrives and sometimes reluctantly, often at some sense of peace or completion, the living pass through the wall of water again, returning to the hazy gray, the ashes and dust from which they came and must return.

Viola’s installation is inspired by writings by Senegalese poet Birago Diop, and its title is taken from Andalusian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, who wrote, “The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.”

The installation was a hit at the 2007 Venice Biennale, where it appeared in a 15th century chapel near the Piazza San Marco. It was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria as a year-long fixture in December 2008, where it’s been moved to a darkened, simplistic setting now only suggesting an altar while still maintaining its reverence. The meaning is not lost, and the journey echoes the words that inspired Viola’s work:
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.
- Colin Drucker

The National Gallery of Victoria’s Oceans without a shore exhibition on Artabase.
Bill Viola’s profile on Artabase.

*Australian dollars