The Art and Science of Diana Thater
By Stephanie Murg
The pristine white ceiling of New York’s David Zwirner gallery has been turned blue and colonized by giant dung beetles. There are three of them—one male, two females—methodically burrowing into the mud-hued waste material from which they receive all essential nutrients. They are bottom-feeders who have landed on top. This ascension into muck, which plays out in video footage on a ceiling-mounted screen, is part of Science, Fiction, a mesmerizing exhibition of new work by Diana Thater.
The San Francisco-born, Los Angeles-based artist uses moving images to probe shifting relationships, between nature and culture, space and time, art and architecture. Having previously trained her camera on flora and fauna ranging from chrysanthemums and cockatoos to galloping horses (Hollywood-trained stand-ins for a herd of wild warmbloods) and irradiated wolves (prowling Prypiat, the deserted Ukrainian town just down the road from Chernobyl), Thater found her way to dung beetles (Scarabaeus satyrus) from a recent scientific discovery about their navigational abilities: the insects orient themselves to the Milky Way and move in a line relative to the galaxy. They are the first animals known to do this.
“It was fascinating to me that such a little creature and a creature that is so looked down upon, has this amazing skill—a skill that human beings only learned several hundred years ago—to navigate by the stars,” says Thater, 52, who sought casting help from an entomologist at the University of Arizona and traveled to Tucson to film the nocturnal beetles in the wee hours. The video projects onto the ceiling from a large rectangular box that stands in the center of the gallery, which is illuminated in a wash of cobalt blue light. The box, limned in yellow light at its base, appears to hover above the floor.
“This piece is a bit of an ode to Light and Space artists, who I’m very inspired by,” says Thater, referring to the movement associated with the likes of Robert Irwin, James Turrell, and Doug Wheeler. “But on the other hand, instead of having a magical effect on the ceiling, it has this projection of beetles in dung, which is a kind of reversal.” Or perhaps the ancients were onto something with their scarab amulets. “The Egyptians believed that the dung beetle pushed the sun up into the sky every morning,” she adds.
As for the sky itself, Thater has moved it to the walls. On view in an adjoining room are two video works that show the Milky Way at its most spectacular. These animated views are from Santiago, Chile as projected and filmed by Thater in the planetarium at L.A.’s Griffith Observatory—the ominous object in the foreground is not an orbiting satellite or alien spacecraft but the Zeiss Universarium Mark IX star projector. “Of course this is connected to the other piece because of the intimate, wonderful relationship between dung beetles and the Milky Way, but it’s also about the macro/micro relationship,” she explains. “These tiny beings utilize this great expanse of the stars to get wherever they’re going. So I was interested in the projection of the beetles very large and the projection of the Milky Way very small.”
The exhibition’s two rooms, with their disparate scales, are united by an intensity of observation—and colored illumination—that is present in much of Thater’s work, the subject of a retrospective opening this fall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Each of her large-scale projections immerses the viewer in a subject that has its own unique relationship to time and space, yet these works revel in rather than conceal their cinematic nature. They depict time, map space, and enable shadows that keep human scale perpetually in sight. Notes Thater, “They are science and fictions simultaneously.”
Science, Fiction is on view through February 21st, 2015 at David Zwirner (533 West 19th Street) in New York.