Diana Thater: Life is a Time-Based Medium
Hauser & Wirth, London
26 March – 16 May 2015
by HARRY THORNE
The simple reason that American new media artist Diana Thater (b1962) has been exploring the intricacies of the animal world for such a long time is that she is not finished. For while her part-video, part-light, part-architectural works have graced the walls, ceilings and floors of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, and Kunsthaus Graz, Austria, they continue to direct viewers towards areas of ambiguity that are yet to be fully understood. Rejecting the conventional approach to presentation, Thater’s immersive environmental installations repeatedly inspire a questioning of the relationships between humans and animals, humans and nature, nature and technology, and nature and culture.
Having previously worked with dolphins, gorillas, wolves, falcons and zebras, to name but a few, in her latest exhibition at London’s Hauser & Wirth gallery, Thater’s focus is the Galtaji Temple, India, an important site of pilgrimage and the home of a tribe of rhesus macaques. As aesthetically overwhelming as it is physically vast, the installation consists of two rooms: the first enveloped by a floor to ceiling projection of the temple’s shimmering facade, the second a blacked-out space, on to the front wall of which a cinema screen is projected. On the screen is a looped video of the monkeys, on the front left chair of the auditorium the film’s sole visitor, Thater herself.
These rooms are not intended to transport you to the temple or to position you alongside the monkeys as they pick their own fleas, for these works, as with all of Thater’s, are very aware of their own limits. Instead, as the artist illustrates through the inclusion of her own profile, these animals and the temple within which they have made their camp are here to be observed. This is not a space of deception or trickery. Rather, this just an artwork, an artwork in which: “The animal and the natural and the man-made all crash into one another and somehow make meaning.”
Harry Thorne: You shot Life is a Time-Based Medium at the Galtaji Temple, near Jaipur.
Diana Thater: I had been reading about a tiger temple in Burma that I wanted to travel to, but it was far too dangerous to go, so I started looking for another temple that had wild animals inhabiting it. I was talking to a friend, and he said, “I just saw in Jaipur, there’s this temple that’s inhabited by monkeys”, so I researched it and I went exactly a year ago. It was just spectacular and amazing, but the really interesting thing was that it’s a temple to Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god.
Before I went, I just thought, this is perfection: a monkey temple and a monkey god. It really follows on from all of my interests: the human/animal relationship, the relationship of humans to nature, how animals enter into culture, and how we understand them through the theatre that is culture or the theatre that, in this case, is religion.
First, there’s this long shot of the temple. Inside the temple there isn’t anything – it’s actually just a facade built on to the side of a cliff – but I wanted to give it an interior, so I made the second room. I wanted to make a series of places where one would contemplate the animal. There’s the temple and, if you look at the facade, there are monkeys crawling all over it, and then once you enter you’re in a theatre and you see a person sitting in the theatre watching a film of monkeys. Three layers about contemplation; about contemplation of the animal.
HT: It reminds me a lot of The best animals are the flat animals (1998), and the way in which you projected images on to several layered screens.
DT: Exactly, it’s all about penetrating layer after layer, finally coming up against the animal and then having to think about it. It’s encouragement to think through this, think through this, and think through this.
The best animals are the flat animals is a really good example of this, as is the other piece that goes with that work, The best space is deep space (1998). It’s about the idea of animals on screens, flattened out and made wide and broad and large. Contemplation doesn’t necessarily have to be about the deep. It can be about the width and the breadth instead of depth, and that’s something I’m really interested in, this flatness. When I went to India and I saw the temple, I realised the whole thing was about flatness, but then I came back and had to work with this space, which has no character.
HT: Are you referring to this space in particular, or the gallery space more generally?
DT: Well the last show I did was at [Hauser & Wirth’s gallery in] Piccadilly, and that had so much character – I put my piece Chernobyl (2011) in there. But, for this, I knew I just had a huge room, and how was I going to work with flatness in this room? So I literally made two rooms out of it for you to penetrate. Where something like Chernobyl was a complicated space, this is not a complicated space, it’s a layered space.
A lot of the time I work in 360 degrees, but here I didn’t put anything behind you. I didn’t want you to turn around, I only wanted you to go forward, so that when you do eventually turn around and leave, then there’s nothing in front of you, it’s all gone.
HT: The blue neon glow of the cinema screen creates an interesting darkness in the second room. You turn around, your eyes can’t really adjust and, aside from the ornate door leading to the first room, all you have is darkness.
DT: I really liked the way the door came out. Because I never get to see my work, I wasn’t sure initially, but when I got here and they had cut it, I said, “That’s just what I needed, that’s exactly what this piece needed”, that little bit of theatricality.
HT: The way in which you manipulate architecture to coexist with your videos opens up an interesting ambiguity. Both here and in many of your works, Delphine (1999) for example, it brings the installation into the walls, into the whole space. It’s quite hard to define where the work begins and ends.
DT: From the beginning, I never wanted to work with just Bill Viola-style hidden projectors projecting on to screens. I wanted to work with architecture and with corners and doorways and windows. A lot of Robert Morris’s writing was important to me – still is. He talks about presence, about presence in the work of art and about being present, and that’s been really influential for me. That’s why I make all my work silent. I don’t want it to be like a movie where you lose yourself, or you identify with a character: I want you to be fully present physically and feel the space, hear other people walking, other people talking, never losing where you are. You’re always there, but you’re always somewhere else at the same time.
HT: I think that particular sensation is heightened by the fact that you don’t hide your projectors. There are always shadows moving in and out of the works.
DT: Installation has that very particular quality which I love, in that it encompasses both time and space, so when someone walks in, they are part of the work. They’re inside the work of art, and I want people to see themselves there: What do you look like? What’s your figure like? What’s your shape? Here’s you in a temple. Here’s you and a monkey. Here’s you in a theatre.
I really hate the idea that one should have to hide the technology in order to make magic happen – I thought magic happened in its presence all the time? We’re so used to technology and it’s so much a part of our lives, so I just put it out there. Projectors have a sculptural element as well; they have a sculptural presence. They have a body. They have a sound. You can hear them humming.
HT: You mentioned the importance of time to your work, something that the title of the exhibition alludes to. Can you talk about its significance to this project in particular?
DT: With this piece I decided to address it head on, because film and video are referred to as time-based media. They make meaning in time, and it’s the one thing they have that other works of art don’t. The painting behind us exists in time, but it won’t change in time. I was emailing with one of my closest friends, a philosopher, about time-based media, and at one point he wrote back saying: “Your life is a time-based medium, Diana.” So I named this Life is a Time-Based Medium because, ultimately, how do you make meaning in time? Does time have meaning? Is time a line, is it a circle, is it random? Are there parallel times? What are the times of the body, the times of the universe? They’re all different kinds of time. Animals live in a different time than we do, they don’t live in narrative time, and I was always really fascinated by that.
HT: Let’s talk about animals then. Your work has included primates on numerous occasions, in Electric Mind (1996) and gorillagorillagorilla (2009) for example, but also wolves, dolphins and falcons. Why are you so intrigued by these animals, and by monkeys in particular?
DT: Each animal I work with is attractive to me for a different reason. With zebras, for example, I wanted to think about the herd, but when I worked with wild dolphins for Delphine I was very taken with the way they live not only on x and y axes, but also on z. All fish live in height and depth and breadth, but as mammals that need to breathe air, dolphins live in this simultaneous consciousness of space and water, they live as two beings.
I’m interested in primates because they’re so close to us chromosomally, they’re so like us. They live in families the way we live in families, they use tools – I filmed gorillas in Cameroon using tools to break open mangoes and nuts – and I’m just fascinated by their social lives and the way they relate to one another.
With the monkeys, I’m really interested in character, that’s why the monkeys here are in closeup. Gorillas aren’t known for being naughty, but monkeys are known for being naughty and curious and funny. We attribute all of these kind of very charming characteristics to them, in addition to them being a nuisance and thieves. That’s why you’re given really tight closeups of them here, because their facial expressions are fantastic. They’re thoughtful, they’re funny, they’re playful. They’re so many things, and that’s why they are shot the way they are and projected the way they are on the movie screen. Each of my works is different, and each is particular to the animal that’s the subject.
HT: I think that’s particularly noticeable in Delphine. The side of the frame almost dissolves, taking the aquatic environment with it, and the dolphin is just left in space.
DT: When people ask me what that particular work is about, I say freedom. It’s exactly about that. It’s about the freedom to move in all dimensions.
HT: I want to talk about the contradictions that always seem to figure in your work. In this show alone we find nature v technology, man v nature, and reality v myth. Do you aim to produce this ambiguity, or does it occur as a result of the subject matter?
DT: I think it happens when working with this subject matter. Things just crash into one another. If you have been working for as long as me, then in a way you start to depend upon your intuition – if I can use a word that’s almost taboo in the art world. You just know that you’re going to find that one paradox or that moment at which things are no longer binary. When two things come together and are no longer separated from one another; when there’s no longer nature and culture, but acculturated nature; when the animal and the natural and the manmade all crash into one another and somehow make meaning.