Friday, 2 January 2009

On Ocean Without A Shore

If you can you really ought to visit Melbourne's NGV and spend some time with Bill Viola's 'Ocean Without A Shore'.

Those familiar with Viola will recognise some of the the themes, the transience of life and the intensity of the human, and the format, a triptych of video screens in a darkened room.  However the 'Ocean' is deep and moves profundly.

It's important to know that the piece was first staged in The Church of The Oratorio of San Gallo in Venice, at Bienalle, and that the format, three screens, placed here, on plinths set against the walls of a self contained room, were originally set on the altars of that medieval building.  Each screen is as tall as a man and the three are set at right angles from one another, watching from the space in front we can see all three.

On each screen, in an ongoing loop of ninety minutes, we see one figure at a time in the far distance, grey against a grainy black that slowly approach us.  As they draw nearer we start to recognise features, traits and begin to attribute speculative attributes to them, we are drawn in by their slow passage to the foreground and curious about their story, their reticence.  Almost lifesize now, we notice that the grisaille figure is separated from us by a dividing veil, a thin constant curtain of water, as the figure reaches through, brushes against the water, they also break through a wall of light, the effect is prismatic, sparkling, electric.  Once through the curtain, in part or whole, the figures, people now, appear in full colour, high definition.  Each reacts differently, some are elated, others hesitant, some overcome on contact with the world of light an colour.  Each stays a while and then, leaving nothing but an unanswered question of a story they pass back through the curtain and recede into the distance.  As this happens on one screen we realise we are at a different point in a journey on another, or that we are in the presence of two people or alone in the space again, the synchronicities and interactions make us wonder if they are designed or coincidental, if the people who look out from the screens are aware of one another or even us.

The cumulative effect is moving and, at once manages to be both hypnotic and stimulating.  It is an intensely humane experience that manages to be both direct and subtle.

Viola cites a number of sources of inspiration for the work, the title coming from the Andalusian Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi.  He also explains that the people represent ghosts or spirits with the curtain of light and water the threshold between this world and another.  If this is one explanation the power of the work rests in the way it can support so many interpretations.  Perhaps it's fitting that a work so humane and layered should be inspired by one living in Andalucia's convivencia, when Christian, Jew and Muslim lived in more or less harmonic accord to create some of the most remarkable and humane art and literature the world has seen.

Personally I felt I was experiencing a meditation on the individual and his contact with the world around him, between the conscious and subconscious, between the personal and the other.  The effect of each figure breaking through the wall is for them appear to step through the plane of the picture and into our space, their presence is almost physical.  Once through the plane each person is framed from mid though upwards, only a little higher than us, as a result we might be looking through a portal into another room, the other world left behind.  Sometimes two people are 'on our side' and we might read a flicker of recognition, a need to communicate, or perhaps just our own need to place a narrative on these souls as we watch them in their moment in the sun.  And that might be the core of the power of the piece, Viola gives us the raw sodden vulnerability of normal looking people but not their story, we reach out to them and realise that to be human is to need to share out stories.

The occasional Viola piece suffers from an actorly earnestness on the part of the participants, that's happily absent here, the performances, such as there are, are all restrained the emotion crackles in between their presence and our own, it doesn't need to be telegraphed.  Instead there is an aching need for contact, a realisation that although now in our space we are still, essentially, alone unless we reach out.

This might be the best of Viola's work for many years, 'Five Angels For The Millennium" was literally sublime but one suspected it relied on scale for much of its affect, "The Passions" was marred by the odd piece of hammy gurning whilst "The Tristan Project" veered a little toward the pop video fireworks.  In "Ocean Without A Shore" Viola shows his mastery of space, form and content and creates something pregnant with meaning and emotion.  

Sitting in the room I was reminded of both the transcendent magnetism of some of Rothko and the bare naked humanism of Rembrandts portraits, through different means Viola reminds us that there is more, and that we find it as we cross the gap between ourselves and other people.

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