Abyss of Light
Thater is one of the most important video artists working today. Since the early 1990s, she has created a wide range of film, video, and installation-based works whose sculptural forms engage spatial perception in physical, as well as conceptual, terms. Her pioneering oeuvre was among the first to push the boundaries of how new media art is displayed, helping to cement its position in the art world.
Through a combination of the temporal qualities of video and the architectural dimension of its physical installation, Thater’s work explores the artifice of its own production and its capacity to construct perception and shape the way we think about the world through its image. Natural diversity, wildlife, and conservation have been persistent themes in the artist’s work, and she has dedicated herself to an examination of the varied kinds of relationships humans have constructed with animals. While her in-depth studies of ecosystems and animal behavior propose observation as a kind of understanding in itself, her ethical position is implicit in the work, which, while subtly political, provides views of the sublime in all its incarnations—stunning, beautiful, and simultaneously terrifying.
In her new installation, which like the exhibition is titled Science, Fiction, Thater focuses on the dung beetle and the intricate navigation system it deploys in disposing balls of animal excrement, its main source of nutrition. Recent studies have revealed that the species uses the Milky Way to orientate itself at night, currently the only insect known to do so. In an experiment in which the beetles were placed on an outdoor table, they were only able to navigate in their usual straight line with an open view of the nocturnal sky—when their overhead vision was blocked, their movements became erratic and slowed drastically. The same experiment was repeated inside a planetarium, alternately turning the Milky Way on and off, and the animals’ path was demonstratively straighter and faster in light of the galaxy.
Diana Thater’s video installations remind me of a solitary walk I once took not long after sunset along the canals of Venice, California. What struck me that summer evening was not the quiet drama of the sun’s light gradually withdrawing from the sky, nor the sky’s subtle shift from crystal-clear azure over the ocean to a more opaque, seemingly out-of-focus, orange-tinged thickness over the city. From the westside of Los Angeles, sunsets seem to happen in reverse: well after the sun dips beneath the western horizon, an orange glow appears above the opposite horizon, toward downtown where the smog is thickest. What I remember most vividly, however, is the light of many televisions, individually illuminating the interiors of bungalows and condominiums, glowing softly behind curtains and drapes, reflecting off the ceilings of rooms above ground level, and casting slight shadows across grassy yards, parked cars and the rippling water in the canals.
Against the backdrop of the sunset’s beautiful afterglow, the light of the TVs constituted an alternative, yet similarly plotless drama, an extremely artificial performance whose beauty was not qualitatively different from that of the urban sky. Whatever characteristics distinguished the two types of light simply did not make sense in terms of a fundamental opposition between nature and culture or reality and artifice.
The light of the TVs intrigued me because I was seeing it, in a sense, from the other side, accidentally or indirectly – like moonlight, which is actually reflected sunlight. Thoroughly stripped of the narrative contents and programmed messages for which it was produced, the ambient light of the TVs was just there. Like the sunset, it was a seductive phenomenon that served no explicit purpose and fulfilled no predetermined function. Anonymous, impersonal and pointless, the televised light was plainly available to any passerby, there to be momentarily enjoyed or ignored. Unlike the sun’s vanishing light, however, the light of the TVs had the advantage of not being burdened with excessively sentimental expectations or overly romanticised (that is, clichéd) pathos. These qualities have also ruined many movies by bogging down their fantastic, cinematic light with sappy narratives and the cloying exploitation of standard emotions.
On that summer evening, I was not interested in appending to the televised light speculative stories about social alienation, yuppie loneliness or the breakdown of the nuclear family. I simply did not feel the need to use the light of the TVs – which sometimes emanated from different windows in similar patterns, whenever two or more residences were tuned to the same channel – to make up fantasised narratives about other peoples’ urban isolation, the privatisation of their lives, and the relentless technological colonisation of their desires. In fact, I didn’t care at all about who was inside the houses, watching – or maybe only listening to – their TVs, connected to their neighbours only by their separation from them, in closed quarters where they passively shared pre-programmed selections. The light that emanated from their homes sufficiently absorbed my attention, making questions of social context momentarily irrelevant.
Thater’s silent installations of projected and ambient light often take me back to that experience because they share its structure, logic and anti-narrative abstractness, offering an intensified elaboration of its strangely suspended temporality and weird, floating spatiality. Her two most recent pieces, Late and Soon (Occident Trotting) and Abyss of Light (both works 1993), seem to turn space inside out and fold time back on itself, not in order to maintain some outdated Modernist fiction of a closed moment of aesthetic perfection that magically delivers viewers to an experience of pure transcendence, but in order to catch us in the present, before it passes by unnoticed. Her paradoxical videos open outward, into continuous, unending and decentred situations which rather quickly fuse with – or disappear into – one’s ordinary perceptual environment.
With Thater’s work, it’s always up to the viewer to choose to be in the middle of things, or to bypass the distortions her seemingly uneventful events generate, dismissing them as unfocused and tediously drawn out videos. Which they are. But their pointlessness is precisely the point. Thater’s art is difficult – or invisible – only when approached with the expectation that it should relay a story or convey a message. The mode of attention her installations require and elicit is not common to most videos or paintings. If you enter any of her pieces and try to stare them down, scrutinising single elements and focusing your attention on individual components, you’ll quickly become frustrated. Her work deftly refuses to co-operate with viewers who insist on using their eyes as aggressive, probing instruments.
Instead, Thater’s slippery art invites obliqueness and indirection; it prefers casual, nearly distracted glances; it lures vision away from its ordinarily acquisitive means of apprehension; it allows viewers to get lost in aimless perusal and eliminates the need to determine immediately the meaning of visual phenomena. A perspicacious type of passivity – a sort of patience that segues into blankness – thus takes on positive value in Thater’s work. Neither instantaneous nor interminable, her installations simultaneously embody aspects of Tony Smith’s description of his ride on the unfinished New Jersey turnpike (without his apocalyptic self-centredness), and Michael Fried’s attack on this quintessentially literalist experience (without his fantasy of utter abandonment to art’s time-stopping self-sufficiency). Contrary to the logic of this Modernist-Minimalist battle between viewers and objects, Thater’s quasi-objectless art embraces duration by derailing its progress. In her work, sequential spirals and shifting repetitions make it impossible to determine whether the art or the viewer is in control: wholly immersed in activated spaces, both components play off one another in fluid dances of abstract, unnatural beauty.
Late and Soon (Occident Trotting) overthrows the authority of one-point perspective and the fixed progression of sequential images (such as the frames of films) by asking viewers to imagine what Eadweard Muybridge’s horse (Occident) saw when it was put through its paces in the photographer’s famous studies of motion. On the front window and walls of the reception area of the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, Thater projected a series of images of rapid movements through four distinct landscapes, including a botanical garden, a reedy marsh, a grassy field and a burned canyon. She set the projector out of register so that the full-colour image was split into three duplicate images, each in a constitutive tone of the original: red, blue and green. On the rear wall of the main gallery, the same laser disc video was shown simultaneously, but through three separate projectors, each of which projected only one of the component colours. Thater aimed the projectors so that the three images exactly overlapped on a single rectangle of the wall, rebuilding the picture she had dissected. After breaking it down, however, it was impossible to reconfigure seamlessly. Three separate points of view cannot recreate the illusion of one-point perspective: the vanishing points never matched. Viewers were left with the dizzying feeling of being inside a drunken or drugged Impressionist painting.
Perpetually out of sync, Late and Soon… further complicated its relationship to nature (or any external referent) by offering a small, Plexiglas model of itself, complete with miniature projectors, in a darkened back gallery. Walking from room to room made you feel alternatively gigantic or minuscule, like some mutant character whose body no longer served as a stable point of reference. Moving from the main gallery (where you were a small part of the incessant play of light and shadow), to the back room (where you towered, god-like, over the whole mise-en-scène), created the impression that the first room was not a distortion of nature but simply a full-blown elaboration of the little model. Together, the installation and its mirrored miniaturisation suggested that art’s job is not to copy nature or even to refer to it, but to create states of mind that let us experience things more compellingly. Once these states are entered, the identity of the world’s things is open to question.
If Late and Soon… addressed space and the viewer’s relationship to it, Abyss of Light dealt with time and our relationship to its uninterruptable movement. At 1301 in Los Angeles, Abyss of Light was Thater’s most cinematic installation: she called it ‘a Western without a vanishing point.’ This compressed, 30-minute video tour of some of the West’s most dramatic natural landscapes ingeniously slowed time down so that it seemed to crawl along at about half its normal pace. The piece began with the projection, on three adjacent walls, of a panoramic view of Utah’s Bryce Canyon. The wraparound image soon splits into three sequences of 100 individual scenes on each of the walls, moving from Monument Valley in the morning, to the canyons of Zion and Canyonlands in the afternoon, and ending at the Grand Canyon at sunset, before shifting to a three-wall panorama of Death Valley, also at sunset. Images of running deer, chirping birds, ancient petroglyphs and blowing sand were interspersed among the natural monuments. The video on the right wall proceeded in real time; the centre wall at quarter speed; and the left wall at half speed. Almost as soon as you became aware of the three distinct temporal movements in Thater’s installation, the images on the left (which were projected at half speed) usurped the feel of real time. On the right, real time began to feel like fast-forward.
Thater’s captivating installation intensified the difference between various physical experiences of time and its actual passing. Her three-part video had the presence of an unending dream or an ongoing reel of lost memories, both of which often seem to drift through consciousness more slowly than life moves by on the outside. But Abyss of Light also occupied the type of time we experience in life-threatening or other highly charged situations, in which our senses are so stimulated and our perceptions so acute that life seems to slow down, as if to give us the opportunity to take everything in, in full detail. This subtly haunting work disrupted the singularity and inflexibility of straight chronological structures, presenting the possibility that each moment embodies complex and multivalent realities that cannot be reduced to a fixed perspective or neutral point of view.
Both her installations begin in the invisible space between seeing and knowing, and continue by rigorously distributing this internal, bodily incommensurability around dimly lit spaces through which viewers move and images shift. Thater’s art ends by undermining the idea of completion, by doubling (or tripling) back on itself (with the viewer included) to become an unframed, free-floating and mesmeric experience of hallucinatory immateriality. Here, the unpredictable give and take of pleasure finds a little space in which to manoeuvre, sometimes against our wills, often along with them, but always on its own terms.