Viola video installation at PAFA evokes mystery of passage

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has added a new, major work to its contemporary art collection: the meditative, 90-minute video installation by Bill Viola called “Ocean Without a Shore.”

It’s the only major work by the Los Angeles-based artist in Philadelphia, and the only copy of the piece in the United States.

On the forefront of video art for decades, Viola was invited to participate in the prestigious Venice Biennale in 2007. He created “Ocean Without a Shore” as a video triptych whose plasma-screen monitors fit snugly above the altar of a 15th-century Italian church.

Each screen shows a person at a distance. In grainy black and white, the figure at first more resembles a specter than a person. What the viewer cannot see is an undisturbed sheet of water–as clear as glass–falling between the observer and the observed.

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As the figure slowly approaches the camera, he or she walks through the water wall and emerges in full high-definition color, as if present in the room, then slowly turns and walks back into darkness through the waterfall. The process is repeated, with some variation, by 23 actors.

“I was trying to honor my parents,” said Viola. His mother died in 1982, and his father in 1999. “Being at their bedside when they breathe their last breath, and holding their hands as their souls left their bodies, I was very lucky. It’s a huge teaching experience when you meet reality head-on. When I saw this water wall and what it can do, it was very evocative of what I witnessed with my parents’ passing.”

The 90-minute piece was purchased by PAFA and put on long-term display in its own darkened room inside the academy’s landmark Furness building. With a soundtrack of drones and dirgelike washes, the looped electronic figures cyclically come into light and leave again.

“My goal was to give someone the impression that there was someone on the other side of death, looking back at us,” said Viola. “It’s something that Western culture does not really understand.”

The title of the piece comes from the writings of 13th century Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi: “The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.”

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