Bill Viola: ‘Ocean without a shore’.

These last few weeks in Victoria have been all about heat, fire and drought, and so there’s a certain aptness in writing about an artist whose works often make use of water. Bill Viola is an American artist whose work, Ocean without a shore, has recently been purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria. It has been installed for a number of weeks, and I finally managed to get to see it. As with the other times I have seen Viola’s work, I was completely awestruck by it.

The work was originally made for the Venice Biennale, where it was installed in a small chapel. Each of its three screens took the place of altar pieces within the chapel, and the setting must have generated an amazing atmosphere in which to view this work. Here’s  a short film about the installation of the work in Venice:

The NGV installation retains a sense of the work’s engagement with the sacred and the uncanny by placing it within a very small, darkened room. The spectator sits on a low bench just inside the room, a low bench reminiscent of a church pew. Each screen is placed on one of the three walls, in a manner very similar to the Venice installation. Unlike a standard chapel altar piece, however, the images within the screens are moving.

Each screen shows the same scenario, performed by a different person. A blurry figure stands at a distance from ‘us’, or, from the ‘front’ of the image, if the screen constitutes some imaginary ‘front’. These images strongly evoke depth of field – the figures start in the distance, walk forwards, halt, look around, turn, then walk away. When they have each returned to their starting point, each one is succeeded by a new figure (although this moment of succession is never possible to see on screen – I found myself always either distracted by the other screens or simply unable to make out the exact moment of transition due to the fuzziness of the figure once it has receded into the depth of the screen).

The figures do not move in synch with each other; they come and go in series, sometimes in the same order (left panel, then centre panel, then right panel), sometimes not (left panel, then right panel, oh, then left panel again, then centre panel, then right panel… and so on). The speed of the figures is slow: they are in fact shown in slow-motion, which makes their movements seem both ponderous and tentative, and which adds to the ominous tone of the piece.

And what else is happening as each figure makes this slow walk forward and back? There is, as with all Viola’s work, a great deal more going on, consisting mainly in the thick texture of the artwork itself. As each figure draws near to ‘us’, they pass through a wall of water. Digital effects mean that we do not see the water, except as after-effects – droplets, spray, sprinkles – after each figure passes through it. But what we really are being invited to look at is the transformative capacity of the water: the individuals are of course drenched by the water, so that previously frizzy hair lies flat, or a light coloured shirt is soaked dark.

But more than this, passing through the water wall plunges the figures into rich, deep colour and sharp focus. No longer grey and blurry, they seem fully present as they stand and look around, sometimes seeming even to gaze directly at the viewer. They exhibit no pleasure or joy, however; their moments are still solemn and hesitant, and after a short time, each figure turns and walks back through the invisible water (which we still see only in its after-drops) and back into black and white indistinction.

While this takes place, we hear a dull continuous, almost industrial thrumming sound, which crescendos to a cascade of noise whenever a figure approaches and moves through the water wall. Here’s a short clip which gives a sense of what this looks and sounds like:


Viola is, as many of his other works will confirm, fascinated by the anunciatory and transfiguring power of water. A number of years ago, I had the experience of seeing one of his works, Five Angels for the Millenium, at the Tate Modern in London. Here’s a video clip  which gives an idea of what this work is like – you have to persist till the end for the extraordinary pleasure of the last few seconds:

That work was installed in an enormous, extremely dark room; five gigantic screens were installed on the walls, each showing a single figure plunging into and out of water in extremely slow motion. For the viewer the experience was utterly disorienting: I found my gaze compelled by the screens, and the surrounding darkness meant that I often did not see other spectators on the periphery of my visual field, so that I would bump into people while moving around to view the screens. Thus, just as the figures in the work were plunged into dark water, so the spectator was temporarily immersed in darkness: ‘all at sea’, as if moving through an unlit ocean.

In the NGV piece, although water plays a large part (as you can tell, both from my description and from the title of the work), we are not being invited to feel any such consonance or connection with the figures depicted, or to measure our experience in comparison with theirs.

On the contrary, the invisible wall of water marks a threshold – between the worlds of the living and the dead. For Viola, the figures in each panel are ghosts. The work makes literal the archaic term for a ghost: shade. Faintly visible in blurry grey tones they come towards us – the living – and attempt to press themselves into our world, but are always, after each brief return, forced to withdraw, to fade once more into the shadows where they belong.

The triangulation of the three screens, with each successive apparition gazing at the spectator, provides a melancholic sense of a threshold that cannot be surpassed, of the limits of life for us all, and of the irrevocable rupture that death brings about. It’s an artwork of immense power, and, in the immediate aftermath of the devastation brought by bushfires in Victoria, it’s an artwork that seems made for this sad time.

2 comments so far

  1. SPARCS on

    this is simmilar to something (though this second something was not as inclusive and vast) installed at ACMI…where ghostly figures would walk toward you as you approached a wall…bit spooky

  2. Mike on

    Just passing by.Btw, you website have great content!

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