Diana Thater discusses her exhibition The Sympathetic Imagination with James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling and Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Joey Orr in the Griffin Galleries of Contemporary Art on the museum’s fourth floor.
Joey Orr: Thanks for coming out today. It's great to see such a big crowd, and we're super excited about the exhibition. So, we're gonna be making three stops all the way through the exhibition and some of the larger spaces. We, of course, encourage you to meander into the smaller spaces as well, and of course, it'll be impossible to cover everything that's in this exhibition over the course of about an hour. So any questions or comments that you might have, please tag us afterward, or I'm sure we're happy to take questions during as well.
So, what we wanted to do just to start is give you kind of just a brief general introduction to Diana and what's happening here in this exhibition. This is Diana Thater. She's born in 1962 in San Francisco. She received her bachelor of arts in art history from New York University and her MFA from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena where she is a professor now. You will have noticed when you came up on the fourth floor that you were already distinctly in a kind of different space because the whole fourth-floor lobby is colored.
You'll notice if you look across the atrium, the windows in the back at the light gallery are gelled. They're gelled red, green, and blue, RGB. Those are the primary colors of light and therefore film and video, and so Diana is wanting to just sort of introduce you from the very beginning into the sort of baseline colors and vocabulary of her media. This one piece that we have here in the lobby, Six-Color Video Wall, are images of the sun taken from NASA.
She realized that when NASA was studying the sun, they were also looking at the images broken up into RGB: the red, green, and blue. What you have on the top are the complementary colors, which is cyan, magenta, and yellow. You'll notice behind you cyan, and if you look up in the atrium, magenta and yellow. So the entire entry space is sort of welcoming you into the tools of her craft.
Interesting to just sort of note from the very beginning that early in Diana's career, she was very much influenced by structural film. So these were artists, early pioneers, who were interested not so much in content or narrative as they were in exploring the limits and possibility of their media. So you will notice, as Susan mentioned, when we walk through the spaces of the exhibition that nothing is hidden. All of the apparatus and equipment is right up front and considered part of the artwork. Another very common strand you'll see flowing through the exhibition is Diana's interest in the natural world and animals as well.
So, to better think about and talk about how this all plays out, we thought we would do that in the spaces of the gallery. So, welcome in and please follow us.
Michael Darling: So before I get to a question for Diana about the content of a piece, such as this one that we're looking at here that's called Knots and Surfaces I thought it would be also worth mentioning right off the bat or asking Diana right off the bat about how she presents her videos. Because one of the things that we find fascinating about her work and really kind of innovative is that you're almost not – you're seeing almost no video projections in this exhibition that are mere rectangles on the wall where you have to sit down and look at a video.
Diana, I wanted to ask, when did you find that format to be unsatisfactory and want to push video installation towards a more architectural kind of scale like we see here?
Obviously, we're seeing now what for many other video – artists that work with video might be a problem in that you see your shadows incorporated into the piece, but that's something that you very much welcome and even engineer into the work. Isn't that right?
Diana Thater: Yes. I have always wanted viewers to penetrate the projections, and you'll see that in pretty much everything I've ever made. And the idea was that the viewer is never outside of the artwork. When a viewer enters into installation, and you could see Joey pointed out that even when you get off the elevator, you're inside of an artwork. You're always inside. I never want the viewer to be outside of the work of art looking at it. I want you to be inside looking through it, looking in it, looking with it.
I want the viewer to be conscious of their own body and relationship to the work of art, and to be conscious of themselves experiencing something in space and in time. So you're not supposed to – and that's the other thing about filmic projections and video that you sit down and watch. If you think of the theatrical presentation of film, video, or even traditional film or theater, you are supposed to sit quietly and forget your body and look and experience what you're seeing through your eyes, through your ears. My work is about experiencing something with your whole body, and so you see yourself in the work. You see yourself seeing. You see your shape. You see your form, and you always remember.
You're not supposed to lose yourself. You're supposed to always be present, fully present in the moment and in the place that you occupy.
MD: That's great. One other aspect of that that I'd want to impress upon everyone is to not just sort of look at the main – what seems like the main attraction. But as you go through the show, look back from where you came from and look forward and ahead and keep calibrating yourself back and forth because Diana has also done all kinds of really amazing things with colored lights. So even if you look behind yourselves there, that room has got this sort of pinkish, orange-ish glow.
If you look to the next room, you see purple and pink. All of these images even are calibrated to the edges of the doorways and the walls. So everything in here is highly intentional in a way in terms of how you sculpted this room. Is that a good way to describe that?
DT: Yes. Joey and I worked together using three-dimensional models. I model my work. I designed my exhibition using things like Sketch Up and other – Rhino, if anyone knows some three-dimensional computer programs. I design everything in the show, including the size of the doorways and the placement of the doorways and the relationships of artworks from room to room. So you always have a view or a vista through doorways, and I think of it kind of – hmm? Oh, sorry.
I think of it kind of photographically, like if I were to stand in one place and take a photograph, what could I see of one work? What could I see of another work? How can I make you aware of every space, the space from which you've come and the space to which you're going, and the space that you're currently or presently occupying?
MD: Right. One thing that I also wanted to mention is that unlike most exhibitions, you're not going to find labels on the walls that give the titles and the dates for these pieces because Diana really wanted everybody to just be present in the space and immersed. But there is a brochure that we've created that has all of that information in it that you could use as a guide as you go through.
But then halfway through the show too, you'll also find other orientation materials including interviews with Diana about every single piece of the show. So even if there are things that we're not talking about here today, you can go and look at that on iPads and hear Diana's explanation. So thank you for that. Also, just wanted to make sure you didn't think that we were leaving you hanging without that information.
One thing, again, as we're too big of a group to go in here, but as you circle back through on your own, I would definitely encourage you to look at these two rooms here. This is one of – the earliest piece in the show, isn't it, Diana?
MD: That was filmed in Claude Monet's garden in France in Giverny, and especially it's one of those piece especially where you should walk in front of the projector and see how your image gets implicated into the piece. It's really fascinating.
JO: So we're standing in a work that's called Delphine, and I especially wanted to stop in this gallery because I think it gets across a lot of different concerns that are really important in Diana's work. One thing that I meant to mention at the beginning, that I need to say now, is that this exhibition was originally organized at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and this is actually a mid-career retrospective for Diana. So it's really covering the vast expanse of her practice over many decades. One of the reasons that it was so important to us here at the MCA Chicago to bring it in is because we see Diana as a real pioneer in film and video.
Some things that are going on in this room you can really read very well. So, for instance, in speaking to one of her old professors when she was younger, this professor said Diana was the one that gave us permission to point the projector anywhere. This just speaks to the whole conversation about breaking out of the video rectangle. Also, one of the things that Michael mentioned in the other gallery was when we think about Diana, we don't just think about her in terms of film and video, but also in installation. So the space is activated very colorfully here.
So I wonder maybe if we could just start by asking you about the color in the room, and why this color and how it's functioning in this installation?
DT: This is a work from, I think, it is – 1999, I think. I can't remember, 1999 or 2000. It's titled Delphine and it's a work I made in the Caribbean with a pod of free dolphins along with a dolphin rights activist who was my guide. I just want to say just briefly that my work always involves a great deal of research, and a lot of it involves a lot of travel to very specific locations to film very specific vistas, landscapes, gardens, animals, elements of the natural world, flora and fauna. Because the work is filmed under water, to answer Joey's question, and the primary colors we see under water are green, cyan, and blue, I wanted to engage or enliven or involve the rest of the room.
So I used the colors that complement blue, cyan, and green; and those are red, orange, and magenta. I wanted to and I do want to always involve the entire space once again so that you're always inside of the work of art. I don't want you to stand back there and stare at it, but also enter into it and look back and see the color projections and the sun on that big video wall right there, the views through the doorways as well as the projections themselves, the sort of central part of the piece itself.
So I always want to make you conscious of space, and as I said before, the space that you occupy and the time in which you occupy it. A fully sort of present body engaging with an artwork and engaging with an architecture.
JO: One of the things I also love about the activation of the space, and we haven't, I don't think, said anything about this yet, but the title of the exhibition is The Sympathetic Imagination. I know one thing that's really important to Diana in her work is creatively thinking through what it might be like to have an encounter with how another species experiences space. So if you can imagine all of us being in the same gallery space, but none of this work being on and how we might be having such a different experience.
We might just walk from that door directly through this and not think about what's going on above or around us. So by activating this space and breaking the image up so it occupies the space differently, Diana is also giving us a visual imagining of what it might be like to encounter these other species. Also, we should say that just kind of technically in the filming that there's lots of different things going on here in terms of Super 8 film and video. Could you maybe tell us something about that process?
DT: Sure. I film almost all of my work myself. I shoot most of it myself except when I cannot because I am not a trained diver. So I hired a professional cameraman who is a diver. So I had one, and then I had Ric O'Barry, the dolphin rights activist, who has also been a cinematographer. You see them filming from the bottom, and they are diving and they have big standard depth video cameras. On the surface, because I can snorkel, is me and two other camera people using little underwater Super 8 cameras.
So everything you see from the depths is shot in video, and everything you see from the surface is shot in film, and then I intercut them. I've shot in everything you can imagine: Super 8, 16, 35, standard def, hi-def. Any kind of camera interests me, and I use them specifically to separate different kinds of images or – you'll see in the next room in the falcon piece that we're going to go to that's shot in 35 mm film and then transferred to video. So I'm very interested in the textures and the colors that one can achieve with film or with video and how I can differentiate different kinds of space with them.
MD: One other thing that you mentioned, Diana, to me yesterday or to a couple people is that also the sun that is the counterpoint here also has to do with even just sort of dolphins' practices, right? Because they're mammals, and they need to go up towards the surface to warm themselves in the sun.
MD: But we also kind of failed to point out that in that last room with knots and surfaces, there's also the flower which becomes also the, I guess, the orientation point or ultimate goal for those bees, too. So can you talk a little bit about even how that works spatially or in terms of the content you're also trying to create?
DT: Yeah, I mean, I was talking earlier about installation being between sculpture and architecture, and I make these big video walls on occasion in order to engage – in order to think about sculptural practices. So I took – the sun is very important to dolphins because dolphins are cetaceans, and they are warm-blooded, and they live in the ocean so they need to stay warm.
So they have this great consciousness of the sun, and you'll see that they do this gesture, which I always talk about in this piece. They rise up vertically to the surface, and they open their pectoral fins like this, and they warm their chests in the sun. It's a very beautiful gesture, and it really struck me when I was with them. I kept noticing them doing it, and finally I asked Ric, I said, "What are they doing?" and he said, "They're warming their chests."
So I made this video wall – and I put a NASA image of the sun rotating in space on the video wall, and I tinted it magenta so it goes with the magenta, purple, red of the back part of the room. I made it the kind of anchor for the piece. It's the only big solid object in the work. I think of them as these kind of magnetic fields with an attraction between the sculptural object and the ephemeral video projections. I think of it as an anchor.
For the bees, the bees have a big video wall with a flower on it, and of course, a flower is a magnet for a bee. A flower is a magnet for the bees, and so I give each of these big sort of ephemeral installations a kind of physical sculptural moment with them, so – yeah.
JO: I know there's lots of different ways to sort of encounter the different works in the show, and I also know that it's important to you when you're working to find ways to give back. In many ways, I know that the artwork that you do and the activist work that you do is kept separate for several different reasons. But I remember when you told me about this piece that the activist you were working with afterwards asked what you were now going to do for the dolphins.
JO: I wonder if you wouldn't mind sharing some of that with us?
DT: Sure. When I was out filming – these are free dolphins. I don't work with – I did work at one point with performing wild animals, and I realized after I did that, that my work had led me to the political moment in my life when I would no longer do that. I would only work with free animals. So these are free dolphins. So I went to the Caribbean and I hired a boat, and I had a crew, and we sat out there for seven days waiting for dolphins. That costs a lot of money that I don't have.
So I'm sitting out there waiting for dolphins and Ric O'Barry, who was the animal rights activist – the dolphin rights activist I worked with said, "They're coming. Don't worry. They're coming." Three days in, no dolphins, and then massive pods of dolphins for four days. I have 17 hours of footage and they just kept coming and coming. Ric knew this pod of dolphins. He had been swimming with them. He had met them many times, and incredibly intelligent creatures. They're not dummies. So Ric had this relationship with the. He said, "Don't worry. They'll be here. I know them. They will be here."
After I got this 17 hours of incredible footage, I said, "Wow, I don't know what to say." Ric said, "Now you see what the dolphins have given to you. What are you going to do for them?" So I worked with Ric because he works against placed like SeaWorld, which are essentially animal torture centers. SeaWorld and “swim with dolphin” amusements, and particularly against the annual Japanese dolphin slaughter that takes place in Taiji every year.
There was a very famous film made about Ric. It's called The Cove. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010, and when Ric said to me, "What are you going to do for them?" I said, "I'm going to help you stop the capture and slaughter of dolphins." In Taiji every year they capture – well, they kill thousands of dolphins and they capture the young females and they sell them to places like SeaWorld or “swim with dolphin” amusements. Ric is trying to stop this. So I made a documentary that exposes the slaughter and capture, and it was called Welcome to Taiji. I made that in 2004. Louie Psihoyos, a film director, saw my film and then he made The Cove, which then won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2010.
I made my little film for $25,000, and we put it up on YouTube. We showed it everywhere. We had millions of hits, and then Louie made a film for $25 million and won an Oscar. I said, "I guess I've done my job," because Ric had said to me if one person sees Welcome to Taiji, and it changes – if one person sees it and that person has the power to make a change in the world, we will have succeeded. Unfortunately, the slaughter is going on right now. The slaughter and the capture is happening now. Ric is in Taiji. So we haven't ended it yet, but we've – Blackfish came after that and SeaWorld is going down, and that's something I'm very, very proud of actually is the part that I've played in that.
So that's tangential. I keep my political work and my artwork very separate, and right now I'm working on a Netflix documentary. I'm making a documentary for Netflix about the last great herd of bull elephants in Kenya. So I do kind of political work, and then I make my installations, which are not directly political, but have tremendous political implications. If you think about the conditions of the natural world right now, I think many of you have probably read the article that came out just a few days ago that said three-quarters of animal species will either be endangered or extinct by 2030.
And my work is really about the natural world and the animal world and developing a complex and interesting relationship with the natural world that isn't based on destruction.
JO: Thanks. Before we move to the other side, which has a much different scale and kind of a much different tone – and thank you for talking about that. But just to sort of capture the whole breadth of what happens in this exhibition, can I also ask you just to say a word about what's going on in this gallery and our favorite little spot in the doorway?
DT: Uh-huh. In the next gallery are two video walls, and they're video walls with images of bouquets of flowers on them. Because I work with endangered species or rare animals or animals that are difficult to encounter, I often have to travel, and I have to raise money. But when I want to work in the studio like a regular artist, like a painter or maybe a sculptor and make something in the studio, I can't because what am I gonna do? I'm gonna go out and get a whale? I can't do that, right?
So I use a very traditional method. I make big bouquets of flowers, and I film them in my studio using different kinds of cameras and camera techniques. So in the next room is a body of work called Day for Night and these are bouquets of flowers shot in double exposed 16 mm film and lit with a technique called "Day for Night." The room is lit in the same tones as the video walls so that when you enter in, once again you're inside of the room. You're conscious of space while also being conscious of images playing out before you.
The pieces are meant to engage art historical ideas. When a painter in the 19th century couldn't afford a model, he'd set up a bouquet of flowers and paint that. Think about Manet, right? He'd paint that. So I do the same thing. It was thinking like what could I make for $10, and could I achieve what I wanted to achieve spatially and in terms of time, et cetera for 10 bucks? That's what that room is about. If you look through the doorway, you'll see that I've blended the magenta of this room and the blue of the next room and the doorway glows purple. It is the same purple as the sun that is behind you, so they are meant to echo one another.
JO: So when Michael encouraged you to look through the vistas, those are the very moments that might be easy to miss if you're not thinking about her working in color with light. So over to the next side. So I think we're going to cross right all the way over to the long expansive gallery on the other side and continue there.
We're wondering maybe before we get started talking about work in this room, if there's some lingering questions that people have already that they might want to ask? Yeah, back here against the wall?
Audience Member 1: I was wondering about the sound or lack of sound or sonic quality in the work?
JO: Sure. The question was, why there is no sound in the installations, for Diana?
DT: There are a number of reasons that there is no sound in my work. If you – and you all have experienced, let's say, Hollywood films for a simplest example. In film, traditionally and from the very beginning, sound is used to guide the viewer emotionally. Think about the way music is used in films, for example. I am not interested in transporting you through sound, number one. I am not interested in telling you a story. I'm interested in a kind of abstraction. I am not interested in telling you what the work is about through any kind of audio, through music, through narration, et cetera.
I also grew up going to art museums and I studied art history, and I very much treasure the silence of the art museum because the world is a noisy place, and I like contemplating art in quiet. So those are the reasons I don't use sound, but that said, I use very intense colors. We have a relationship to color that is similar to our relationship to sound. It guides our feeling as opposed to our thought, so I use color, let's say, as an alternative to sound. Color can be hard. It can be soft. It can be loud. It can be quiet. It can have many qualities that sound also has. So I'm experimenting with something other than sound, with alternatives to sound, and that's my response.
JO: Yeah, another one? Sure.
Audience Member 2: Hi, I saw this show in LA, and it's such a different feeling here in this space. I was just curious, you must have to completely recontextualize the work?
Audience Member 2: And tell a new story every time you switch the space. I'm just curious about that.
DT: Well, the work has parameters. My work can – every piece that I make has parameters. It can be the smallest. It can be – and I give a size and the largest it can be, and there's a size. This is the smallest this particular piece can be and in LA, it was as large as it could be.
Audience Member 2: That's why it's a different feeling.
DT: It is a different feeling, and that's the pleasure of being able to make my work is that I can engage with different kinds of spaces, and that's really the nature of installation. It takes a great deal of work to translate an exhibition like this. In LA it was twice this size. It was 20,000 square feet. Here, it's 10,000 square feet, so the show had to be really tight. All the work is much smaller, but it's still working. It's still doing what it needs to do.
JO: I can tell you, we were very excited about that because the spaces were so much larger in LA, but we knew that – I mean, a word that you always hear people use to describe Diana's work is immersive. We knew that by losing square footage, we were gonna really tighten and make the work much more dense, and that it was gonna be a really amazing experience here in Chicago. Should we say something about the room that we're in?
Audience Member 3: Sorry, I actually had a couple of questions. So one is – I think first I would like to commend you on your use of space and having the viewer be immersed. I think it really gets around the problems of "I am spectator." I guess my questions would be, first of all, why do you only use color through projection? You don't paint the walls or anything. Then my other question would be, "How do you deal with the unique challenges of the museum space?" So exit signs, cameras, stuff like that?
DT: Oh, not painting the walls? Well, I use color in the projections and I use colored light, and I don't paint the walls because painted walls are flat. I guess I could paint the walls and bounce light off of them, but it's much more interesting to me because paint is a different process. Light is an additive process. Red, green, and blue are the primaries. The primary colors in paint are red, blue, and yellow, and I want to always work with the language of film and video and the language of light. So I only use light to sculpt space, and it's very hard to get painted walls to glow the way light glows. It's difficult to – when you work with light, you can make space almost fizzle. You can almost feel space, and that's what I really want and light allows me to do that.
Then your second question was, how do I deal with all of the conventions of the museum space? I just let them be. They are what they are, and it's the same thing with the equipment. The exit signs, the doorways, I project right over them. I don't hang screens. I don't remove them. I don't hide them. Because, and I don't – I reveal all of the equipment. You see the crew in the work. You see all kinds of things that show you not only the conventions of film and video and how it's made, but also the conventions of the museum and of architecture.
My stated belief is that beauty and transcendence can happen amongst and amidst all of those things, and there is no need for me to create a deep theatrical space, hide the equipment, remove the exist signs. I like the interruptions, and I like the reminders to the audience or to the viewers that this is the space as it really, really is. It's not a – nothing is hidden. All is revealed including exit signs. Yes?
Audience Member 4: Excuse me. Is this an earlier work? I was just wondering because they don't look free, the birds going by.
DT: No, this is – no, these are – no, this is not an earlier work. These are falcons, hawks, an Eurasian eagle owl, and kestrels. I said I don't work with performing animals. I shouldn't have said I only work with free animals. These birds belong to falconers. They fly free. They hunt. They do all of the things that these birds are meant to do. Many of them are rescued birds. I was very interested in the relationship between falconers and their birds and falconers and the history of raptors in America.
As we all know, DDT almost wiped out eagles and particularly, the California condor and peregrine falcons. Falconers, the people who keep falcons, were the people responsible for saving these birds. I was interested in their relationship to conservation and their relationship to their birds. But I don't use performing animals. I use free animals and in this case, I use animals who have a very complex relationship with human beings, but are still allowed – they still fly free. They hunt. They do many things. So, yes, I think that's a good point to bring up.
Audience Member 4: They don't seem like they like their hats.
DT: No, they don't love their hoods. They rarely wear them. I asked them to wear them for this particular shot. They can't – in this shot, the birds were all lined up with a black background, and the camera was on a crane. So the camera was moving. The birds are not moving. The birds were set. So, here, it looks like the birds are moving. They're not. The birds can't be in close proximity to one another because falcons, hawks, raptors don't work in groups. They fight. So they have to wear hoods.
JO: Can you also – since we're talking about this piece – say something about the images that are bookending the space?
DT: Sure. On either end of this work are the sun tinted blue, again a NASA image, and the moon tinted yellow. My work is inspired by many things including film, literature, philosophy, theory. There are many inspirations: sociology, biology. Every work is inspired by different things I've researched or read. This work was inspired, of course, as I said, by the California falconers' relationship to conservation, but it was also inspired by Egyptian mythology.
In Egyptian mythology, the god Horus has the body of a man and the head of a falcon. His left eye is the sun and his right eye is the moon or vice versa because I can't ever remember, left eye, right eye, sun and moon. So, in order to make the work a little bit – feel a little bit like mythology, I added the sun and the moon and these contrasting colors.
JO: I wonder also if you could say – because there's one bird, this big owl that's so different from all of the others. Could you say something about why that bird is included here? I'm hoping he's gonna come out right at the exact magical moment.
DT: At the moment that you want him, at the moment that you want him to? No, he's in a few birds. There are 13 birds in the piece. They're all falcons, hawks; there are two kestrels, and the last bird that goes across the wall is a Eurasian eagle owl. I'll tell you a funny story. When I met these falconers, and I invited them all to bring their birds, I didn't actually ask them what kind of birds they had.
One guy showed up with an owl that is about half my size. He's probably about two and a half feel tall. He's a Eurasian eagle owl, and all of the other falconers wouldn't talk to him because they thought he was show-off. They were just like, "Show-off." He's walking around with this massive owl, and so I made the owl the last bird in the piece because the owl wears no hood. Owls don't wear hoods. The owl wears no hood, and I matched the color of the moon to the owl's eyes. I wanted there to be this echo, this golden echo within the work and the owl right at the end.
JO: Here he is. He's coming up.
DT: Here he is, and if you watch him, he'll look right out at you and look right into the camera lens. He's a beautiful, beautiful animal. He does it twice. He looks out from right about here, and then he'll do it again right at the end, and he looks where he's going too even though he wasn't moving. So the owl is the last bird. The sort of – real sort of pinnacle of the piece is this stunning animal who is almost mythological. So I made him the last bird, and then the piece just starts again. I don't know if that answered your question, but it was a fortunate –
JO: Yeah, yeah, this was good.
DT: I am often the victim of fortunate accidents. So something like that I was very fortunate that in my other work, China, which we haven't seen, but you should go look at it. It was all about 2 wolves, and I made 6 projections of 2 wolves because I wanted to multiply them and turn them into pack of wolves. When the 2 wolves came out, so I wanted there to be 2 wolves and I turned them into 12, right, using 6 projectors. When they came out with their trainers, the trainers were identically dressed sisters.
So I had 6 women who looked exactly the same, and I had 12 women, and I had 12 wolves. My husband who was working with me said to me when the 2 sisters came out and they were identical, he said, "Lucky." Because it was all about doubling and multiplying, right? So, like I said, I'm often the victim of unfortunate – of fortunate accidents.
JO: I think it might be good to say something. It will be hard for all of us to go into that gallery at the same time, but the piece through this door is Life is a Time-Based Medium and this piece is the most recent work in the retrospective from 2015. So I wonder if you might just – it's so distinct from everything because of the architectural intervention. So I wonder if you might say something about that?
DT: Sure. In the next room is a work called Life is a Time-Based Medium. As Joey said, it's the latest work in the show. It's from last year. It's a work I filmed in Jaipur in India, just outside of Jaipur. There is a temple there to the Hindu god Hanuman, who is a monkey god, and monkeys are holy in Hinduism, as are cows, for example. This particular temple is abandoned and has been taken over by a troop of wild monkeys. So I was fascinated by a temple to a monkey god in which monkeys actually live. No one put them there. No one keeps them.
The interesting thing is that on holy days, people go to the temple. There's a pool, and they bathe in the pool, and they give offerings to the monkeys. So I filmed on a holy day, and the monkeys are eating the offerings, which are bananas and peanuts. So there's a projection of the temple and the doorway to the temple is cut out, and then there's a little room that's a theater. In that theater, you see a viewer watching the monkeys on film, watching the monkeys eat the offerings on film.
I was very interested in that work and doubling and tripling the architecture. So you're in a museum. You go into a space with a projection of a Hindu temple. You walk through the doorway of the temple, and you're in a movie theater. So I wanted to talk about the museum as temple, the museum as theater, the church as theater, the church as museum, et cetera, et cetera. I wanted to double and triple the space that you're in and have you think about the nature of what architecture engenders. What kind of thoughts and what kind of beliefs we are encouraged to think through architecture. So that's really what that work is about. Yes?
I just wanted just in – I've used a lot of images of the sun revolving in space because I wanted you to feel – because we see the sun as a kind of glare in the sky. We never feel it as a volume, like a ball. So the work – the video wall with the sun on it in Delphine you're supposed to feel the sun like a ball rotating in space, as well on these monitors in the entrance. These I just wanted to be flat like Egyptian paintings on architecture, like a golden circle or a blue circle. So I wanted them to have that kind of quality.
Audience Member 5: Are we standing in one of your happy accidents? Because I feel like as if this room was made such –
DT: Yeah, right. [Laughs]
Audience Member 5: – just the way you wanted it. Did you know you were going to be here and looked at the space and said, "This is perfect!"
DT: No, I think the curators know that. I think the curators look at this show and that's the beauty of curators because I didn't think about the sun and the moon and the barrel vault. I was – right, and the first person who said it to me was one of you guys. I can't remember who said it, but, "The sun and the moon and the barrel vault, it's gonna echo the shape," and I was like, "Oh yeah." But that's the beauty of curators. This piece fits perfectly in this room.
Audience Member 5: It's collaborative.
DT: It really is. I mean an exhibition is always a collaboration between curator and artist, but yeah.
JO: Although I would say because Diana is so invested in space, you can work with some installation artists that have no idea what the work is gonna look like three days out. That is not the case with working with Diana Thater. She's very conscious of the architecture and very purposeful about the placement of the work too.
Somebody have one? Yep?
Audience Member 6: What is your favorite part of the show?
DT: What's that?
AM: What's your favorite part of the show?
DT: Oh, I don't know. I love this room, but my favorite part of the show is – I can't even say. Each work has different meaning for me, different kinds of memories. I like seeing my very old work because it's very rare. I mean unlike a painter or a sculptor or someone who works in traditional media like a photographer, I can't see my work unless I have a show. So I can go years without seeing these pieces, and then I put them up again and it's like an old friend. So for me, each of these works has different memories.
China, the wolf piece I was talking about, was first shown at the Renaissance Society, and here I am in Chicago, and I've put it up again, and there's a particular kind of nostalgia that's associated with Chicago, the Renaissance Society, and now the MCA and China. So maybe that's my favorite. Maybe I could say that.
JO: Well, I wonder in absence of questions, if we might just kind of end with talking about the last piece down here, which is a piece called Chernobyl from 2011. Because where was sort of a – after you left Chernobyl, there was kind of a dictate that was given to you, "Please correct the kind of story."
JO: That might be an interesting note to –
DT: The last work and –
JO: Sure, we can move down a little bit so people can peek in and meander in and out.
DT: It's a very small room, so I would recommend just a few people going in at a time. This – essentially the last work on this side is called Chernobyl. It's an artwork that I made in Ukraine in 2010, 2011, and I made it at the site of the largest, the greatest, the most dangerous nuclear meltdown in history, which took place in Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986. That disaster has unfortunately been surpassed now by Fukushima, right? We all know Fukushima, and, of course, we should all know Chernobyl. It's in a place – because there was not enough money – this was in the old Soviet Union. There was not enough money to clean up the irradiated zone. They simply closed it off to human beings.
It's poetically called the "Zone of Alienation." There's a city, Pripyat, and abandoned Soviet city and then there's the nuclear power plant, which is called Chernobyl. I went there, and I documented the natural or what seems to be the natural world surrounding the city and invading this abandoned city, and in and around the nuclear power plant. The interesting thing here is that because people don't live there anymore and animals are being driven out of their natural habitats by human beings, because this is this kind of free zone with no people in it, animals are moving into it. So there are herds of wild horses. There are moose. There are wolves, beavers, et cetera.
Animals are not thriving there. They are poisoned. They are irradiated, but they don't know that, right? All they know is that this is a space without human beings where they can be left alone. So I documented the animals living in and around this poisoned "Zone of Alienation" and it's projected on six walls for very complicated reasons. But if you go into the piece, you'll understand why it's six-sided. But this is perhaps, as I've said before, one of the sort of darkest pieces I've made, and it's really about destruction.
All of my work is about the relationship of culture to nature and how that relationship is constructed, deconstructed, and how we live through it. That's why I work with falconers. They have a very complex relationship with birds and with the natural world. Chernobyl shows a very – human beings at their most destructive. We should thank and realize that our relationship to the natural world is primarily a destructive one, and this is a piece that's about that.
- Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination–
- Short A gallery installation featuring three videos of dolphins underwater projected on the walls and floor. The projectors are visibly suspended at varied heights in the magenta-colored room.
- Long A view of a spacious gallery that is dark magenta and lit by blue video projections. Three videos of dolphins swimming in the water are projected on the walls and floor from suspended projectors, creating the impression that the viewer is swimming below and looking up at the dolphins. A fourth projection on the floor shows the silhouette of an ambiguous person swimming in scuba gear.
- MCA Talk:
Diana Thater–TalksFree (with admission)
- Short Video of a pod of dolphins in cool blue tones is projected across the walls and doorway of a gallery; a luminous red and pink sculptural installation is visible through the doorway.