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It’s A Watershed Event: Diana Thater’s Beautiful Brush With A Disappearing Natural World At The ICA

A visitor to the ICA Watershed watches "Delphine" by artist Diana Thater. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A visitor to the ICA Watershed watches "Delphine" by artist Diana Thater. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
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The biggest brush many of us have with wild animals is the squirrel scampering across our path on city sidewalks. In Brookline, this might also extend to a wild turkey or two in the road, while in other suburbs it might include the family of raccoons living in the attic.

Now video artist Diana Thater attempts to give us an entirely different experience of wild animals -- most of them endangered or nearing extinction -- in an inaugural exhibit opening July 4 at the ICA Watershed, the Institute of Contemporary Art’s new East Boston annex housed in a former copper and sheet metal facility in the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina.

Befitting of a space perched at water’s edge, Thater’s video installations are anchored by a piece centered around dolphins. The installation "Delphine" features footage of dolphins swimming and cavorting in the cyan depths. Their sinuous forms are projected onto the floor, ceiling and walls in a room that frames the teal hues of the video itself with the projected complementary colors of red and magenta. Immediately, both the videos and the projected colors combine to immerse visitors in a unique environment where, for the first time, we not only get to see, but feel, these larger than life dolphins glide placidly around us. Thanks to the placement of the projectors in the room, we also see our own shadows in the brilliant colors and images, so that we, in effect, become part of the work, our own silhouettes floating along the walls or on the floors, alongside the dolphins.

Here's a look at "Delphine" when it was installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art:

But here we encounter more than just dolphins. In this 15,000 square-foot raw industrial space bathed for this exhibit in all the colors of the rainbow, we can see “As Radical as Reality,” a video installation in which we watch Sudan, the world’s last surviving male northern white rhinoceros, while he serenely munches grass, while two armed guards keep watch nearby, ever vigilant against poachers. (Sadly, Sudan died in March, at the age of 45.) In “A Runaway World,” we watch a herd of elephants companionably drinking from a man-made swimming pool. Just a short time before she shot the video, Thater had taken a dip in the swimming hole located in Kenya’s Chyulu Hills. The actions of the animals are unremarkable and unremarked on.

In “Delphine” and “As Radical as Reality” we also get glimpses of the film crew itself on the edges of the frame. The appearance of humans adds another dimension to the work, as we consider both the intrusion of the two-legged beasts, as well as their confidence and intimacy with the animals. Yes, it turns out, we humans do indeed share the planet with animals. But not only animals. In an untitled piece, Thater trains her camera on the imperiled Monarch butterfly, whose numbers are quickly diminishing in the face of pesticide use and climate change. She also includes three pieces, “Day for Night 1, 2 and 3” which feature images of flowers shot with a 16mm film using day for night filters. The images are lusciously beautiful and require nothing other than our rapt contemplation.

“The primary idea behind my work is the relationship between culture and nature, between the human world and the world of nature, the world of animals,” reflects Thater. “There is always an open question about the relationship between the crew and the subject and between those who have relationships with the animals already and the subjects.”

Thater grew up watching nature documentaries with her father in Long Island and Brooklyn. Her father was a hunter and outdoorsman, and even took her hunting, although she says she never shot anything. She was enthralled as a child by David Attenborough and Jane Goodall documentaries, and captivated, as well, by the depiction of vast Western landscapes in John Ford films. Thater was mesmerized by documentaries and narrative films, however, as an artist, she was never pulled to follow that direction for herself.

Artist Diana Thater stands in her exhibition at the ICA Watershed. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Artist Diana Thater stands in her exhibition at the ICA Watershed. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Although her work grows out of her “fascination with narrative film but also the documentary,” she says it “functions as neither.”

“I wanted my work to have a different kind of presence,” she says. “A lot of people ask me why I don’t work for National Geographic or something, but that’s not my interest. It’s not to inform people about the natural world. It’s to engage them in a kind of pleasurable encounter with it.”

These works, often, but not always, set against projected color, are meant simply to be beautiful and alluring.

And yes, although there may be no placards describing exactly how we are contributing to the decimation of the earth, that reality is always implicit in what we see.

“We’ve lost 50 percent of our wildlife in the past 40 years,” says Thater. “But the work is not meant to be didactic or explicitly political. The work has an implicit politics in that it portrays those beings in the world who we are destroying. But it portrays them in the most beautiful way possible. The work deals with fairly tragic subject matter but it’s very attractive. It’s very good looking in a lot of ways. The whole point is to see the beauty in this natural world, even as we destroy it.”

"As Radical As Reality" by artist Diana Thater at the ICA Watershed in East Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"As Radical As Reality" by artist Diana Thater at the ICA Watershed in East Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Thater lives in Los Angeles and is a professor at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. In the course of her career, her work has dealt with nuclear fallout in Chernobyl, the experience of wild gorillas living behind fences in a park and monkeys inhabiting a temple in India. Her work employs unexpected camera angles and other tricks of the artist, but she also employs her camera skills in an entirely separate line of work as an animal rights activist. She has worked as a videographer for Save Japan Dolphins — an organization, under the umbrella of Earth Island Institute, dedicated to stopping the slaughter of dolphins and whales in Japan and to ending the black market sale of live dolphins and whales by the Japanese to seaquariums. In the end, it turns out that Thater has been able to indulge both of her impulses -- not only to make art about the natural world but to try to protect it at the same time.

Unlike so much video work, Thater shoots everything herself, the old-fashioned way, without use of computer animation or second-hand film. Only for the more exotic shooting, such as the rhino or the dolphins, does she take along someone else to help out. For the making of “As Radical as Reality,” Thater, along with an assistant director spent a week filming rhino Sudan and his human companions both day and night. She was looking to capture the intimacy between them on film.

"It’s a very independent kind of solo enterprise," she says of her work. "I don’t want to rely on anyone else’s decision. I want every decision to be my own, which is really unusual when you do video."

Diana Thater in the field. (Courtesy T. Kelly Mason)
Diana Thater in the field. (Courtesy T. Kelly Mason)

Her work is an abstraction of traditional film and video, where she says time is the subject matter, unlike in painting, where the image itself provides the subject. Although film traditionally seeks to portray time, Thater’s work only hints at the passing of time and the significance in that. It’s up to the viewer to draw the connections to the fragility of our world and our complicity in destroying what exists.

Therein lies the point, but it is as subtle and commonplace as the passing of another day. True, the days pass in succession, but then suddenly, they don’t.

Diana Thater's exhibit is at the ICA's Watershed, the museum's new East Boston location, starting July 4. The Watershed will be open through Oct. 8 this year and then open seasonally, from late May to early October in future years. Admission is free. The space is a six-minute ferry ride from the ICA. The museum is contracting ferries through Boston Harbor Cruises for the boat ride from the ICA to the Watershed, which will be free to ICA members and included with the ticket. 


Pamela Reynolds Twitter Visual Arts Writer
Pamela Reynolds is a writer and a visual artist. She was a feature writer and editor at The Boston Globe for more than a decade.


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