The Beginning Meets the End

Katie Dune
courtesy of PAFA

“Is that the metro below us I hear?” was my question to the visitor services attendant upon entrance into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). “No,” he informs me, rather, “it is Bill Viola’s video installation, Ocean Without a Shore, next door in the Morris Gallery.” I was entranced by the juxtaposition of this new innovative technology against the centuries old architectural achievement in which it was housed as a first time visitor to not only the museum itself, but also this newly acquired exhibition. Bill Viola, a pioneer of video and installation art, has been internationally recognized as one of the most influential and important American artists of the century. Ocean Without a Shore (2007), a 90-minute loop video, was originally commissioned for the Venice Biennale and installed in the 15th century Church of the Oratorio San Gallo. In attempt to recreate the original context in which the installation was created for, PAFA houses the work in a similar atmosphere of architectural beauty and spacial awareness.

The sound of roaring water, though hardly recognizable, the dark disorienting room, and the ghostly figures moving in and out of view, all present the visitor with an experience both entrancing and ominous. The 90-minute looping video made up of sound and images but lacking dialogue or narrative allows the visitor to move along with the singular individuals within the three separate screens mounted on the walls. The journey the individuals take within the three screens, moving from behind a wall of rushing water as grainy and eerie figures, transferring through it, and then back again, represents the entrance into the physical world, our short time in existence, the realization of death, and the eventual acceptance and exit from the physical world. This philosophical masterpiece, while holding a heavy message and truth to it, is presented to the visitor in rather an inevitable journey that is taken by all who enter the physical realm in which we currently exist. 

In experiencing Bill Viola’s work, the visitor, while possibly taking away many different messages, is able to meditate on a topic that is sensitive and troublesome for many to ponder. However, due to both Viola’s and PAFA’s placement of the visitor in a dark, secluded, and private room, the visitor may exit revived from the rushing of the water and revelation of their present place in the physical world. Bill Viola’s Ocean Without a Shore is an entrancing experience for the brave and curious visitor.