2015 will be big for Diana Thater: the Los Angeles–based film and installation artist will have projects throughout the year, including a show at the San Jose Museum of Art, new work at Hauser & Wirth in London, and a major retrospective opening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in November, and it all kicks off January 8 with the opening of her eighth solo exhibition at David Zwirner in New York.
Having previously worked with wild dolphins, gorillas, and wolves, Thater has recently made work that focuses on dung beetles, monkeys, and painted eucalyptus trees. Modern Painters associate editor Thea Ballard spoke with Thater — who was accompanied by her three-month-old kitten, Mugsy — about her experiments with narrative and space, and her relationship to the animals she takes as her works' subject.
THEA BALLARD: Tell me about the show at David Zwirner.
Diana Thater: The large installation is called Science, Fiction, and it's brand-new. It's made with dung beetles that I shot in Arizona. The interesting thing about dung beetles is that it's been proven by scientists that they use the Milky Way to navigate, because a lot of them are nocturnal. We have such a low opinion of dung beetles, but they're really beautiful: They're iridescent purple and green. It'll be an image of the beetles in dung, projected on the gallery ceiling. The room is tinted a deep blue.
TB: How did you come to dung beetles?
DT: I'm always thinking about the incredibly interesting things that we don't know about animals. I try to keep up on discoveries, and I read a really great article about dung beetles using the Milky Way and the experiments they did to prove it. Simultaneously, there was the James Turrell show here in L.A., and I was thinking about his sky pieces. What if I made something like that, did something on the ceiling? And, well, a dung beetle, that's exactly the opposite of a Turrell. It's not the beautiful sky: it's shit. And people don't realize how amazing they are, so I thought I would put them in the sky. It's a nod to Turrell and also a totally Diana Thaterspeculation on the nature of animals.
TB: What is the relationship between documentation and abstraction in your practice?
DT: When I first started working, a lot of people were making abstraction in film and video that was completely animation. My contention was that abstraction in film and video is not the same as abstraction in painting, because film and video are images of time; an abstraction would be an abstraction of time. I make nonlinear neo-narrative pieces about places, animals, and things that don't live in narrative time. They don't require a story arc. So I can be more free with the way I use time and the way I edit, and it doesn't have to tell a story from beginning to end, because animals and nature don't tell a story from beginning to end. And I don't feel that film needs to do that in order to engage in a kind of abstraction.
"Time signature" is a phrase I use all the time in this work, because life in nature is cyclical, or circular, or it spirals. There's a famous quote from Jean-Luc Godard that I love. The interviewer asks him, "Do you think that a film has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end?" And he says yes, but not necessarily in that order.
TB: When did you start developing pieces focused on an environment or an animal?
DT: I've almost always worked with images of nature, outer space, the environment, animals, and I've always worked in film and video. I put them together in the very, very beginning because I wanted to find things that didn't live in linear time, because my main interest was in nonlinear time. Animals are nonlinear by nature, despite what National Geographic and Discovery Channel do — like in March of the Penguins or something, they anthropomorphize animals and try to give them a story, and try to make it linear to keep kids' or adults' attention. But you know, this is art, so I can deal in the abstraction of time.
TB: With the installation component, do you find that you're playing with space as well?
DT: Architecture and space have always been really important, because when I started working with film and video, I took a spatial approach. I was interested in redefining what installation could be, because it seems to me that people think the most important invention in the 20th century in terms of art is abstraction. But I think it will be revealed over time that it's actually moving images. My medium is not just film and video, it's installation itself. Installation is somewhere between sculpture and architecture, so I can deal with the sculptural qualities of space and negative space, and I can deal with the architectural qualities of the rooms in which I show. I do tinted lighting, I foreground certain aspects of the architecture, I project directly on windows, ceilings, and corners.
TB: And those elements relate back to the subjects in your films?
DT: Time and space don't only work inside the image, they also work in the space with us. There's a kind of choreography between the image and the space that you're in and the color and the lighting and the architecture. So images might wrap around the architecture, or they might cause you to look around the room, as with my work Chernobyl, where the images covered 360 degrees. There's a kind of choreography within the images between animals, space, and nature, which is one compositional element, and in the room there's a compositional element as well. I mean, you're supposed to live in your own space in the way that you see animals living in their space: completely aware. You're supposed to be completely aware of the space and the architecture that surrounds you.
TB: Your work is engaged with discourse surrounding the relationship between manand nature, ideas like the anthropocene. What are some texts you're reading?
DT: The anthropocene is something I'm addressing in my new catalog. It's a concept that's really important to me. I've also been reading a bit of Donna Haraway, for example, and McKenzie Wark. I'm not a good reader of philosophy or theory, because I'm not a theorist and I read it like fiction. I just skip around and read things that are relevant to what I'm doing. One book that was really important was Jacques Derrida's The Animal That Therefore I Am. That's a beautiful, beautiful book. I watch tons of nature documentariesas well, looking at their filming techniques, like the BBC series Planet Earth, or their show Earthflight, where they put camerason birds. You could see what it was like from a literal bird's-eye view. I'm really influenced by nature docs and how they get made. I'm also interested in the position of the feminine in my work, and I deal with that through addressing the condition of the animal.
TB: How do you view the relationship between the feminine and animals?
DT: I read really early on — and I don't know who said this — but it was that women are closer to animals than men, that men had always believed that women were closer to animals or closert o nature because they give birth and they bleed and do all these things that men can't possibly do or understand. It's thisincredibly natural process that men have tried to institutionalize, but it's something animals do too. I was always interested in the relationship of the female to the animal, and the condition of the female in society and the condition of the animal in relation to culture.
When I first made China — a piece that I made with wolves — the trainers were both women and they were twins. The piece was named for the female wolf, China. It was about behaving, and taking orders, and standing still. My work is really about the freedom of animals to be, not to be oppressed by culture, not to be anthropomorphized or seen as a reflection of man in some way. And I feel the same way about women: the freedom to be what they are, utilizing the way they see the world, which is by necessity different from the masculine perception of the world. I was interested in, for lack of a better term, invaginating spaces, as opposed to creating phallic objects: spaces that surround you and envelop you, as opposed to objects at which you look, or paintings that tell stories, or heroism. I'm not interested in that. I'm creating feminized space.
TB: Why the title Science, Fiction?
DT: It's not science fiction, but the fact that dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate sounds like a kind of science fiction story. Philip K. Dick is really influential to me, but science fiction is also a place where women have found a great deal of freedom. There are a lot of female writers like Ursula Le Guin, for example, women writing science fiction because it's a place where you can imagine a world that isn't built the way our world is built. You can imagine something that's not necessarily a patriarchy, and you can imagine different kinds of female heroes who have different kinds of freedoms and aren't hemmed in the way women are in our various forms of earthly culture. I work with scientists; when I shot the dung-beetle video, I worked with an entomologist. But when the work becomes art, it becomes fictive.
TB: It's fictive but based in a real space, so it creates this possibility.
DT: Exactly. You're in this image of animal space while you're in real space. And that's always been really important to me, this sort of multiple-spatial aspect of the work. Projecting into the image, and then existence in real space, so you're in two kinds of space at the same time. It asks you to be multiple, or to see the world in several ways simultaneously. And art is, if nothing else, a construction of a kind of world.
A version of this article appears in the January 2015 issue of Modern Painters.
via Blouin Artinfo