The Katabasis of Bill Viola


By Jeffrey Bussmann



Aeneas. Hercules. Odysseus. Orpheus. What do they all have in common? Besides falling under the broad banner of being epic heroes, endowed with some form of immortal lineage, each is renowned for crossing into the underworld and back. The average man was no match for such a treacherous errand. Perils were numerous, whether physical (avoiding the beast Cerberus) or emotional (encountering the spirit of a loved one.) Once the quest was complete, the hero often emerged with wisdom acquired from prophetic inhabitants of the underworld. Or in the case of Hercules, never one to be celebrated for his intelligence, a prized item was the reward.


The Greeks called this journey katabasis, literally “going down” or “descent.” In order to be completed successfully, anabasis, “going [back] up” or “ascending,” would directly follow. This full cycle represented a symbolic conquering of death by the hero; whereas, for most humans, the descent to Hades was an eternal resignation to grim afterlife. Only the elite and particularly virtuous had the privilege of entering into Elysium; the worst were condemned to Tartarus, a place of unending punishment, in the company of the Titans.


What relevance, one might ask, does all of this have for contemporary art? The gradual usurping of Academic tradition throughout the twentieth century meant that Classical antecedents, once the bread-and-butter of visual artists, have drastically fallen from favor or been abstracted out of recognition. To cite a well-known Philadelphia example, one must rely on Cy Twombly’s titles for Fifty Days at Iliam to comprehend that he is referencing the Trojan War. But this may sound too harsh on Twombly (who, for the record, could not spell Ilium correctly) and his peers. Some artists working today still employ Classical characters and subjects; however, one must look carefully and have at least had the casual smattering of Edith Hamilton in school to understand the references.


Bill Viola’s Ocean Without a Shore was acquired by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts nearly two years ago, and it has been conferred permanent display since then. Appropriation of Christian tradition in the work is overt: the three channel video was first exhibited in a Venetian basilica for the 2007 Biennale. The video screens were originally mounted above altars. At PAFA, stripped of such a loaded display setting, the triptych construction still projects a strongly Christian grounding. What is notably absent, though, is the pervasive sense of Classical history that can be felt all over Italy, even in a relatively young (by Italian standards) city such as Venice. The evidence of Christianity’s syncretic origins, everything that it assimilated, borrowed, or stole from Greco-Roman tradition, is omnipresent.



So how do we read Viola’s work for Classical themes? In his own words, Ocean Without a Shore shows “the dead coming back to our world, just temporarily.”[1] The video is beguilingly simple: performers go from fuzzy black and white to high definition color as they pass through a thin layer of vertically rushing water. It is as though they become reanimated in the presence of the living, before retreating back again to the gloom of the dead. The technical effect of the sheeting water sets up a transparent threshold, made visible when the participating performers cross through it. Viola has said that his use of water as a liminal device can be read as a reference to the Styx, the formidable river which hemmed in the underworld and kept the dead in place.[2] For his purposes, there is no ferryman Charon to be paid. He facilitates the katabasis for us as soon as we enter the darkened gallery.


Heroes who visited the underworld wishing to communicate with the dead typically sacrificed an animal. The dead fed on the blood so that they would recognize the living and recall the details of their own lives. But reendowing the dead with their wits inevitably inspired regret and longing for life. Great Achilles, fearless as he was in battle, proclaimed to Odysseus in death, “By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man—some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive—than rule here over all the breathless dead.”[3]


The same pain is expressed non-verbally by Viola’s performers. Even though we can see them, we cannot reach them, just as it was impossible for Odysseus to embrace the immaterial shadow of his own mother in the underworld. Viewers reflect their anguish, as Viola designed the work to evoke real memories of personal loss. While some people might believe that the spirits of departed family members remain present as guardians or otherwise, the institutionalized Greco-Roman practice of ancestor worship was lost in the rise of monotheism.


The epic heroes, remarkably in touch with their emotions, had to persevere in the face of great suffering. After holding audience with the dead, sublimation took over. Only Orpheus, unable to bear losing Eurydice for a second time, lost himself in mourning, which eventually caused his own death. After encountering Viola’s work the museum visitor must also muster the strength to move on, however heavy-hearted, if only to the next gallery.



Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art  at the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently completing his master’s thesis on Brazilian art and cultural organizations.

[1] Tate Shots: Bill Viola – Ocean Without a Shore, Venice Biennale 2007, 3 September, 2008.

[2] Ashley Rawlings, “Interview with Bill Viola,” Tokyo Art Beat, 11 November, 2006.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey, Robert Fagles, Trans., Penguin Books: New York, 1996, p. 265.