Through innovative moving image works, American artist Diana Thater shines the light on some of the most urgent conservation issues faced today. After Los Angeles and Istanbul, she brings her colour-saturated installation works to the Guggenheim Bilbao. Sophie Breitsameter speaks to her about the technical challenges of creating work on location, and the fraught relationship between humankind and the natural world
Cloudscapes amidst brilliant blue skies dominate the room, as do images of elephants and rhinos. They seem so close, so tangible, and appear if they were coming towards you, nosing their way into the camera lens. Elsewhere, majestic acacia trees reign resplendent against the backdrop of the African Savannah, while vistas of elephants and giraffes are divided into squares of colour, as if Mondrian had gone pop. Overlapping windows of orange, hot pinks and brilliant blues dominate the image. Nearby, a pile of suns are stacked up, candy colours giving them the appearance of some mega-traffic light, or a mysterious totem pole.
These are the works of San Francisco-born Diana Thater who, for the better part of 30 years, has been pioneering video installation and new technology to create compelling, immersive artistic installations. Her current show, ‘A Runaway World’ at the Guggenheim Bilbao, marks the final leg of a tour that has seen it shown in Los Angeles and Istanbul. With its focus on conservation and the damaging effects of human activity on the natural habitats of flora and fauna (what Thater refers to as “the complex web of relations between human beings and the natural world”), she uses light filtering, innovative installation techniques and displays as well as singularly beautiful documentary-style photography to highlight her subjects with both dignity and depth.
I was invited by Guggenheim curator Manuel Ciraqui – we had a few ideas floating about, but this show, which represents my work from 2016–17 seemed like it would fit perfectly in the space in Bilbao. The show originated at The Mistake Room in Los Angeles in a room that was just a bit bigger. It then travelled to the Borusan Foundation in Istanbul and now has ended here in Bilbao with, I think, the best presentation of the work yet. In short, this was really a collaborative effort between Manuel and me. In 2015 I had a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the MCA in Chicago and most of my work up until that time was shown. This is all the work I have made since that show.
Why did you choose these particular species your subject?
Animals and landscapes have always attracted me, so when I began working as an artist, I naturally gravitated to them. I’ve also always been a huge fan of film so when I began working as an artist, I put these two things together. I wanted to make the alternative to National Geographic – films and videos that show that representation of the other is difficult and the nature of a representation has to be many things at once: both live action AND abstract; figurative AND conceptual. It must also be both landscape and portrait since animals of any species are inseparable from their environment.
Your work is interested in new technologies, particularly related to the moving image…
My work is made possible by technology but you know – all art is based in technology. Paint and brushes are chemicals and tools. Video and film are tools for the representation of time, of a specific duration. In order to let something play out (observation) before the viewer, I use moving image technology to document it (representation).
But, just as I expect a painting to tell me why it cannot be anything but a painting (not a sculpture or a performance or any one of a number of things), I expect moving images to tell me why it must be 4K or HD or 35mm film. I use different tools to film different things. For example, for the works ‘A Runaway World’ (which the show is named after), ‘As Radical as Reality’ and ‘Time Compressed’, I used HD cameras as well as 16mm film and Super-8. The pieces should have a realism, a clarity about them that comes from HD video, while maintaining the far-away feel of film: flatness and depth represented by two different technologies. In this interplay I hope to point out that what we see is determined by how we see. The technology tells us something about the subject. Technology is never indifferent.
What were some of the challenges you faced? For example, your work shows the late Sudan, who was the last Southern White Rhino….
The process for making these works took over a year per piece. The planning was difficult since it required me travelling halfway around the world to make a portrait of a single Southern White Rhino. I had to acquire visas and special permission to work with Sudan [who sadly died in early 2018]. I also had to work with conservations and activists for these projects so that I could learn about the animals I was filming and about their relationship to humans (in the case of Sudan and his armed guards) and their relationship to their world (a herd of bull elephants).
And how important is locale, then, for these works?
The specific sites are integral to the works since the animals are filmed in their own environment. This points to the fact that animals are inseparable from their environment – each animal is a world unto itself and is both an individual with thoughts and personality and a member of a community – a species. There is no ONE world. There are many and they intersect. Mostly when humans intersect with nature they simply destroy it, for lack of a better idea of what to DO with it. Perhaps the response is to do NOTHING with it and to not interfere – but it’s really too late for that. Recent reports in The Guardian tell us that we have lost 70 per cent of species in the last 40 years. It’s just genocide and we don’t even consider the richness of the many worlds being lost. Every day we lose biodiversity and we don’t even notice. That’s anthropocentrism at its worst.
And what about technical challenges in creating the work for this show?
The screens were very difficult to produce and I haven’t gotten them quite perfect yet. I also had to create complicated lighting effects in the installation that require a great deal of subtle manipulation of colour. The Guggenheim has an amazing crew of lighting technicians who really put the lighting over the top – it’s just perfect for the work.
What’s the significance to you of creating interactive experiences; is at better when interactive or solely visual?
I don’t believe there is a difference between the so-called ‘interactive’ (a word I just don’t understand because all art requires not only looking but seeing and experiencing) and the visual. Nothing in the world is solely visual. We have bodies and move through space. I believe that my work should address the eye, the mind and the body. The work is made to place you in the here-and-now in the museum or in the gallery as you contemplate another kind of time and another kind of space that are the farthest away anything can be from the storehouses of human culture.
What are you working on next?
I just received a grant from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Art & Technology programme to produce a project. For this new work I’ll be filming a bio-inspired robot that is based on an orangutan being tested in Death Valley and on a glacier in Alaska. There is no reason to search for new forms to imitate the living, since nature has already developed the most efficient animals for any terrain. Scientists are simply looking to existing life-forms for inspiration. I’m very intrigued by a robot, based on a great ape, climbing a glacier.
A Runaway World is on until March 3, 2019 for more info visit Guggenheim Bilbao
Images courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, Gredrik Nilsen and T. Kelly Mason
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