When Ben Franklin quipped that the only certain thing in life was death and taxes, he may well have spoiled someone’s appetite. After all, death is rarely considered good dinner conversation; it’s a subject that we seriously avoid talking about. But internationally renowned video artist Bill Viola is on Ben’s side when it comes to facing the inevitable. In his newly acquired, three-channel video installation at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Viola insists that while death is certain, our attitude toward it should be reconsidered.
“Ocean without A Shore” (2007) is an immersive, 90-minute video that visualizes what crossing over between life and death might look like in a culture in which death is taboo. On three screens hung above minimalist altars on deep gray walls, people materialize out of static. As they advance, the fuzzy vagueness gradually falls away until it is shattered entirely by an invisible rush of water. Once on the other side of the waterfall, these ghosts assume sharp color and exquisite shadows. They gaze directly at the camera with looks of longing, anguish, tenderness or contentment, and then they recede into the buzzing static once more. The chapel is dark, and the looping cycle of 24 actors is entrancing. It’s both a visitation and a seance, and the cumulative effect can verge on spiritual, if you’re in the mood.
In fact, “Ocean Without a Shore” has sacred origins. Originally created as a site-specific installation at the 2007 Venice Biennale, it was installed in the 15th-century church of Oratorio San Gallo, in Venice. In an attempt to retain the hallowed air of its initial presentation, PAFA built out the gallery to almost exactly replicate the dimensions of the Venetian church. The effect hits home. The haunted sanctuary hums with intensity. “I’m interested in placing death back in our culture,” says Viola. Quoting a line from Senegalese poet Birago Diop, he adds: “The dead are not dead.”
Mysterious insights of pantheistic spiritual flavor are par for the course in Viola’s art. Which is no surprise, since Viola is about as Zen as they come. With a prayer bead bracelet, a meditative goatee and a studio in California, he sometimes drones on a bit like a talented self-help manual might read. But his art has some serious depth.
“This is one of the most important of my works that exists in this country,” says Viola. Coming from an artist who’s been active since the 1970s, that’s saying something. As one in an edition of only three copies in the world (the other two are in Australia and Korea), we’re lucky to have it here in Philly.
It’s a significant coup for Curator Julien Robson, who has delivered one exciting show after another since his arrival from Louisville, Ky., in 2008. “This new addition to the collection is something I have been working on for 20 months,” says Robson. “Its a major acquisition that signals, in a big way, PAFA’s commitment to contemporary art as well as demonstrating that there is real continuity in the collection. It’s a very exciting moment for us.”
But if you don’t quite know what to make of “Ocean Without a Shore,” that’s OK— neither does Viola: “I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of this piece,” he reflects. Best instead to consider a poem by the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, whose lines partly inspired Viola’s piece: “The Self is an ocean without a shore. Gazing upon it has no beginning or end, in this world or the next.” As the video loops, the repetition of rushing water and passing shades may make you feel like death is something worth talking about after all.
Ongoing exhibition. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Historic Landmark Building’s Morris Gallery, 118 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600. pafa.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2