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Diana Thater
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essay Diana Thater, Walker Art Center Collections, 2005

Diana Thater is a Los Angeles–based installation artist who creates works that prompt viewers to contemplate the age-old nature/culture divide. Since her first solo exhibition in 1991, Thater has established herself as a provocative female voice in the once male-dominated world of video art with her largely site-specific, environmental projections. At the outset of her career, she broke radically from the tyranny of the pedestal-bound monitor by projecting her images directly onto the existing walls, doorways, and windows of a given space, while also placing the necessary hardware—projectors, monitors, laser-disc players, and cables—directly on the floor, in plain view. This strategy of making the viewer aware of the apparatus of filmmaking stemmed in part from her interest in the history of video, specifically the first wave of 1960s Conceptual artists such as Peter Campus, Dan Graham, Joan Jonas, and Bruce Nauman. Their structuralist concern with real time and the medium’s raw technology is updated in Thater’s oeuvre with a distinctively contemporary emphasis on the way in which our vision of the world has been mediated through a culture saturated with images.

Beyond the formal issues associated with the politics of exhibition display, the relationship between architecture, human subjectivity, duration, and narrative is of central importance to her practice: “I’m interested in transformation. With each new work I ask how can I reconfigure the space/time continuum and what kind of space does that make for the subject to reconsider herself?”1 Indeed, the audience is implicated as the primary subject in Thater’s work. Physically negotiating one of her installations means occasionally stepping in front of the light of the projectors, which in turn throw exaggerated silhouettes that ultimately provide the viewer with the awareness and experience of being in the work.

In 1998, Thater produced perhaps her most complex work to date, The best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space.2 Shot in both film and video, it consists of six different installations and three monitor editions composed of numerous parts, together constituting a total artwork.3 In the process of creating the piece, the artist posed the question “How is it that one goes about constructing a point of view?” and also provided the answer: “All of the things that make up the work—those who are depicted (objects); how they relate to their space (the field); how the image of them relates to our space (real space); and those who watch (subjects)—are made equivalent.”4

Conceived specifically for the Walker Art Center as “a tribute to a great female artist,” Bridget Riley made a painting (1998) is one of the components of this larger body of work. Riley’s trademark use of black-and-white, optically vibrant patterns in her early work provided an obvious visual counterpoint to Thater’s use of zebra imagery.5 The film, presented as two wall projections and three monitor pieces, was shot on location at Hedrick’s Exotic Animal Farm in Nickerson, Kansas. For the projections, Thater edited a series of close-ups of the zebras, so all that is discernible is a bold (albeit hairy) black-and-white graphic design, shifting and shuttering as the animals graze. The monitors show footage of the herd frolicking in the paddock and the camera crew at work with their vehicles and equipment. Again, the exposure of the “behind the scenes” action is in keeping with Thater’s overall practice—her interest in breaking down the illusion of the fourth wall heightens the self-conscious act of looking.

  1. From Melinda Barlow, “In Dialogue: A Conversation with Diana Thater,” Sculpture 20, no. 8 (October 2001): 39.

  2. This title was inspired by an enigmatic quotation from French theorist Gilles Deleuze’s text The Logic of Sense. The quote reads: “The old depth having been spread out became width. ‘Depth’ is no longer a complement. Only animals are deep, and they are not the noblest for that; the noblest are the flat animals.” It serves as the epigraph to Thater’s essay “Skin Deep,” in Peter Noever, ed., The best animals are the flat animals—the best space is the deep space, exh. cat. (Los Angeles and Vienna: MAK Center for Art and Architecture, 1998), 29.

  3. Thater’s proposition was to have each of the works arranged and rearranged out of its separate parts in different venues simultaneously. See Lynne Cooke, “Diana Thater: On Location,” Parkett 56 (1999): 177–182.

  4. Thater, “Skin Deep,” 30.

  5. In correspondence with the author, July 18, 2004, Thater revealed that as a longtime admirer of Bridget Riley’s optical conceits, she was inspired by Riley’s Suspension (1964) in the Walker’s collection, which she had the opportunity to view during trips to the Twin Cities in preparation for her Walker solo exhibition Diana Thater: Orchids in the Land of Technology.

Carpenter, Elizabeth. “Diana Thater.” In Bits & Pieces Put Together to Present a Semblance of a Whole: Walker Art Center Collections, edited by Joan Rothfuss and Elizabeth Carpenter. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 2005.

© 2005 Walker Art Center

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