Bill Viola Ocean Without A Shore Analysis Essay

“Ocean Without a Shore is about the presence of the dead in our lives. The three stone altars in the church of San Gallo become portals for the passage of the dead to and from our world. Presented as a series of encounters at the intersection between life and death, the video sequence documents a succession of individuals slowly approaching out of darkness and moving into the light. Each person must then break through an invisible threshold of water and light in order to pass into the physical world. Once incarnate however, all beings realise 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.”

Bill Viola
25 May 2007
Text © Bill Viola 2007

The work was inspired by a poem by the twentieth 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’re 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,
whimpering rocks,
they’re in the forest, they’re in the house,
the dead are not dead.

Text from the Ocean Without A Shore website

Bill Viola
‘Ocean Without A Shore’
Original installation at church of San Gallo

Originally installed inside the intimate 15th century Venetian church of San Gallo as part of the 2007 Venice Biennale incorporating its internal architecture into the piece using the three existing stone altars as support for the video screens, the installation has been recreated in a small darkened room at The National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne.

And what an installation it is.

Deprived of the ornate surroundings of the altars of the Venetian chapel, altars that Viola has said “that as per the original development of the origins of Christianity these alters actually are a place where the dead kind of reside and connect with those of us, the living, who are here on earth. And they really are a connection between a cross, between a tomb and an alter – a place to pray,”1 the viewer is forced into concentrating on the images themselves. I believe this is no bad thing, stripping away as it does connotations of religious institutions responses to mortality.

In the work Viola combines the use of a primitive twenty five year old security black and white analogue video surveillance camera with a high definition colour video camera through the use of a special mirror prism system. This technology allows for the seamless combination of both inputs: the dead appear far off in a dark obscure place as grey ghosts in a sea of pulsating ‘noise’ and gradually walk towards you, crossing the invisible threshold of a transparent water wall that separates the dead from the living, to appear in the space transformed into a detailed colour image. As they do so the sound that accompanies the transformation grows in intensity reminding me of a jet aircraft. You the viewer are transfixed watching every detail as the ghosts appear into the light.

The performances of the actors (for this is what they are) are slow and poignant. As Viola has observed, “I spent time with each person individually talking with them and you know when you speak with people, you realise then that everybody has experienced some kind of loss in their life, great and small. So you speak with them, you work with them, you spend time and that comes to the surface while we were working on this project together, you know? I didn’t want to over-direct them because I knew that the water would have this kind of visual effect and so they were able to, I think, use this piece on their own and a lot of them had their own stories of coming back and visiting a relative perhaps, who had died.”1

The resurrected are pensive, some wringing the hands, some staring into the light. One offers their hands to the viewer in supplication before the tips of the fingers touch the wall of water – the ends turning bright white as they push through the penumbrae of the interface. As they move forward the hands take on a stricken anguish, stretched out in rigor. Slowly the resurrected turn and return to the other side. We watch them as we watch our own mortality, life slipping away one day after another. Here is not the distraction of a commodified society, here is the fact of every human life: that we all pass.

The effect on the viewer is both sad but paradoxically uplifting. I cried.

A friend who I went with said that the images reminded her not of the dead temporarily coming back to life, but the birth of a new life – the breaking of water at the birth of a child. The performers seemed to her to behave like children brought anew into the world. One of my favourite moments was when the three screens were filled with just noise and a figure then appears out of the beyond, a dim and distant outline creating a transcendental moment. Unfortunately there are no images of these grainy figures. As noted below Viola uses a variety of different ethnic groups and cultures for his performers but the one very small criticism I have is they have no real individuality as people – there are no bikers with tattoos, no cross dressers, no punks because these do not serve his purpose. There is the black woman, the old woman, the middle aged man, the younger 30s man in black t-shirt: these are generic archetypes of humanity moulded to Viola’s artistic vision.

Viola has commented, “I think I have designed a piece that’s open ended enough, where the people and the range of people, the kind of people we chose are from various ethnic groups and cultures. And I think that the feeling of more this is a piece about humanity and it’s about the fragility of life, like the borderline between life and death is actually not a hard wall, it’s not to be opened with a lock and key, its actually very fragile, very tenuous.You can cross it like that in an instant and I think religions, you know institutions aside, I think just the nature of our awareness of death is one of the things that in any culture makes human beings have that profound feeling of what we call the human condition and that’s really something I am really interested in. I think this piece really has a lot to do with, you know, our own mortality and all that that means.”1

These series of encounters at the intersection of life and death are worthy of the best work of this brilliant artist. He continues to astound with his prescience, addressing what is undeniable in the human condition. Long may he continue.

Bill Viola website

National Gallery of Victoria International website

1. TateShots. Venice Biennale: Bill Viola. 30 June 2007.

Like this:



"The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world and the next.” Ibn al’Arabi (1165-1240)

This small line gave Bill Viola the perfect name for his 2007 video installation made specifically for the Church of San Gallo in Venice, in honour of the 52nd International Art Exhibition La Biennale di Venezia. [1]

The video and sound installation consists of two 65” plasma screens, one 103” vertical plasma screen and six loudspeakers. [2] Due to modern video technology, Viola was able to shoot the sequence in both colour and black and white. The installations shows several people (one per screen) standing behind a thin, almost mirror like sheen of water, shown in gritty black and white. Slowly, they move forwards, to the sheen of water, the almost invisible barrier separating the figures from the audience. Once they break through this barrier, they appear in brilliant colour, soaked to the bone, yet not at all happy at having gotten through to the audience. Slowly, they turn around and return to ‘where they came from’, passing through the water shield and retracting from view.

Bill Viola himself states his reasoning eloquently, be saying that:

“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.” [3]

His work is about the presence of death within our lives, and his first showing in the Church of San Gallo, the three plasma screens poised above three altars makes this motif of death and the resurfacing of the dead more striking and poignant than ever before.

Over 24 performers were used for this piece, and Viola was aided by 20 technical personnel, making sure the recording ran along smoothly. [4]

Viola was inspired to create this artwork by a 20th century poem by Senegalese poet and storyteller Birago Diop: [5]

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're 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/ whimpering rocks/ they're in the forest, they're in the house/ the dead are not dead.

Ocean Without a Shore stands at the centre of the focus of Viola’s world, namely “the sentient self and its manifold rites of passage.” [6]

Ocean Without a Shore can be compared to Peter Campus’s Interface. [7] Campus’s work focuses on the distorted representation of the self, however, whereas Ocean Without a Shore focuses on the distorted representation of the ‘other’, the realization of identities past, dead and gone, slowly returning to the mortal realm. Interface does confront us, however, with the uncertainty of our own identity, the distorted image of the self, the impossibility to pinpoint ourselves in one specific point in time. This ‘passing’ of self can be linked to the ‘passing’ of life in Viola’s work, and both artworks can make the audience painfully realize their own finite nature. In short, we – be it our corporeal form or our identies – will all fade, die.

The fascination Viola seems to have with water is also expressed in his work He Weeps For You, [8] were the distorted representation of the self, the filtered/altered/mirrored image of one self, through the use of water, gives us a glimpse into ‘the other side’. This ‘other side’ is more fully explored in Ocean Without a Shore

Viola has also stated that “[t]oday, development of self must precede development of the technology or we will go nowhere – there will be condominiums in data space […] Application of tools are only reflections of the users – chopsticks may be a simple eating utensil or a weapon, depending on who uses them.” [9] This makes clear that, even though Viola uses state of the art video technology to make his installations, he never loses sight of his main goal: the development of self. Exploring oneself will always be more important than using the latest and greatest technologies.

Viola shows with Ocean Without a Shore that he is, once again, a person who uses “chopsticks” as a weapon, who uses video art as a means to make an audience question themselves and their identity/mortality.


Artist's Website

Ocean Without a Shore Website


[1] Villarreal, Ignacio ‘Bill Viola Creates Work for Venice Biennale’ (2 May 2007) Retrieved from

[2] Viola, Bill. ‘Ocean Without a Shore’. Retrieved from artist’s website:

[3] [4] Villarreal, Ignacio ‘Bill Viola Creates Work for Venice Biennale’ (2 May 2007) Retrieved from

[5] ‘Ocean Without a Shore’. National Gallery of Victoria. Retrieved from

[6] Anfam, David. ‘Introduction’. Ocean Without a Shore Website. Retrieved from

[7] Campus, Peter. Interface. As found in Shanken, Edward. Art and Electronic Media. London: Phaidon, 2009: p 104

[8] Viola, Bill. He Weeps for You. As found in Shanken, Edward. Art and Electronic Media. London: Phaidon, 2009: p107

[9] Viola, Bill. 'Will there be condominiums in data space?' As found in Shanken, Edward. Art and Electronic Media. London: Phaidon, 2009: p 219


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