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Bill Viola’s Ocean without a shore

“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)

Ocean Without A Shore

Bill Viola’s Ocean without a shore, which takes its title from the Andalucian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), is about the threshold between life and death or, as the artist has commented: ‘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. According to Viola’s press statement for the Venice Biennale:

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.

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 a highlight of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007 and has recently been acquired by the Gallery with the generous support of Loti Smorgon. It is on display on the ground floor at NGV International from December 2008 onwards.

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 in the San Gallo chapel in Venice, a fifteenth-century church. In Venice Viola directly incorporated the church’s internal architecture into the installation, using three existing stone altars as recesses for video screens. For the installation at the NGV, the chapel will be evoked conceptually through the creation of an intimate space built within an exhibition gallery.

Bill Viola is a contemporary video artist whose artistic expression depends upon electronic, sound, and image technology in New Media.His works focus on the ideas behind fundamental human experiences such as birth, death and aspects of consciousness.

Bill Viola

Video art, Electronic art, New media art.


Viola’s first job after graduation was as a video technician at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse.[citation needed] From 1973 to 1980, he studied and performed with composer David Tudor in the new music group “Rainforest” (later named “Composers Inside Electronics”). From 1974 to 1976, Viola worked as technical director at Art/tapes/22 , a pioneering video studio led by Maria Gloria Conti Bicocchi, in Florence, Italy where he encountered video artists Nam June Paik, Bruce Nauman, and Vito Acconci. From 1976 to 1983, he was artist-in-residence at WNET Thirteen Television Laboratory in New York. In 1976 and 1977, he traveled to the Solomon Islands, Java, and Indonesia to record traditional performing arts.

Famous Projects

The Quintet Series (2000)

Observance (2002)

The Tristan Project (2004)

The Night Journey (2005)

An Ocean Without a Shore (2007)

Bodies of Light (2009)


1984  USA
1987 USA
1989 USA
1993 USA
1993  Germany
2003  USA
2006  Germany
2009  Germany
2009  Barcelona, Spain
2010  Belgium
2011 Praemium Imperiale, Japan

The Video Sequence

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The velocity and knee-jerk response to events happening in real time that television brings us precludes any kind of reflection or contemplation and therefore analysis. And that’s been one of the greatest political dangers in the post-war era. The idea of the reasoned, thoughtful response goes out of the window.

-Bill Viola

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