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U.S. debut–Bill Viola comes to Pafa and leaves behind a gem


Bill Viola came to Pennsylvania Academy last month for the opening of “Ocean without a Shore,” his three-channel video installation in its American debut! The installation –a new purchase by the museum to be permanently on display in the Morris Gallery — is installed as a triptych in what’s now a dark, chapel-like space, where the piece casts a moody, elegiac spell. The work seems to conjure up the spirits of the dead with cinematic special effects and sound right out of the Matrix.

Bill Viola, far right, with his wife Kira Perov. Center is Robert Cozzolino and left is Julian Robson, Pafa curators

This is the same piece Viola showed at the Venice Biennale in 2007, in the Chapel of San Gallo. There are only three copies of this work–Australia, Korea and here. What a coup for PAFA and Curator Julien Robson!

Viola, a humble man, gave generous thanks to his wife, Kira Perov, at the press opening. “Kira deserves as much credit as I do for the projects we took on over 35 years,” he said. And he thanked audio master Benjamin Lee, who has worked with him for 8 years.

Kira Perov (center) and Bill Viola (right) speaking at PAFA

“I think we were all put on this earth to inspire each other,” Viola said. Then he said the work was inspired by the paintings on ancient Greek funerary urns. Giacometti was also on his list of influences, not to mention Sufi poetry of the 17th century. He said African society is still in touch with the dead, but we have drummed the dead out of our society. The work is partly a result of seeing his parents pass away.

Bill Viola, Ocean without Shore, film still, courtesy of PAFA and the artist

Viola said what started him on the journey that led to this video was seeing an image of an older woman on a funerary urn at the Getty in 2004. Viola’s mother had died in the 1990s. And then he read on the label that the woman’s ashes had been inside. “I can’t even say it. I’m too emotional to talk,” he said. He paused. Then he marveled at how the actors he worked with entrusted him with their inner feelings and emotions.

In Venice, he said, the ghosts outnumber the living and he felt connected to them in the now deconsecrated chapel where he originally showed the work. He also connected with the living–like the Venetian who walked his dog there daily and told him, “‘I was christened there and my son was baptized there.'”

The piece, like a Victorian-era ghost show, immerses you in a room where celestially-back-lit emanations swim into your sphere with a great orgasmic whoosh of sound. Death and birth are the unmistakable subjects. Actors, 23 in all, go through a watery baptism–walking through a sheet of falling water–and then evaporate as grisaille ghosts, perhaps turning to stone before your eyes. The water, when touched by the actors, creates auras of light and a spiritual magic. Viola later told us the piece, with its grainy ocean without a shore, was “a continual cycle of beings, something that will continue going on.”

As for the installation, it too will continue on. “It’s the most amazing thing it’s going to stay here. This isn’t a five-week show,” he said.