Art review: ‘Diana Thater: Between Science and Magic’ at the Santa Monica Museum of Art


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Making a movie about movie magic is not the same as making some of that magic. At the Santa Monica Museum of Art, ‘Diana Thater: Between Science and Magic’ goes so far out of its way to extinguish the magic that you can’t help but wonder why movie magic was brought up in the first place.

The answer is that Thater’s brand of art is opposed to all forms of entertainment, which it sets itself apart from.


Over the last 20 years, the relationship between art and entertainment has become increasingly cozy. This has forced fourth- and fifth-generation Conceptual artists like Thater to shore up the fiction that their own work is not a form of entertainment by evoking the pleasures of such amusements and simultaneously distancing themselves from them. Dreary seriousness is regularly served up as proof that art’s job is to pursue Truth and that nothing as silly as entertainment is to get in the way.

Thater’s clinical dissection of movie magic speaks the language of analytic detachment to make a place for itself apart from the evils of commerce and risks of general accessibility. In the process, it pushes pleasure, surprise and insight out of the picture, never mind fun or comfort.

There’s not a lot to see. The museum’s large main gallery has been darkened. Approximately 20 chairs have been scattered around its center.

Thater’s short, silent film is projected on the rear wall by a pair of 16-mm projectors.

A pair of speakers amplifies the noises made by the old-fashioned projectors. The whirl of their reels and the clickety-clack of their mechanisms drown out the voices of other visitors, making for an island of solitude. It¹s the best part of the show, a mild respite from the cacophony of daily life.

Thater’s split-scene movie shows the same scene over and over again: a tuxedoed magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. On the right, you see him from the front, until the last scene when Thater, working a camera, blocks him from view.


On the left, each scene has been shot from a consistently different angle. After the first scene, which shows a young man operating a camera, you see the magician from the front, then from his right side, then in profile, then from slightly behind, then directly in back of and so on, until the filming comes full circle. In three scenes, about midway through the approximately 15-minute movie, the cameras and their operators appear in the background, captured by the other camera. The looped movie begins and ends with the curtain of an old-fashioned theater being raised and lowered.

The most impressive part of Thater’s movie is the efficiency and consistency of the magician, Greg Wilson, who performs the same basic trick with the precision of a well-oiled machine. There’s not a lot of passion to his actions, but that’s understandable. Thater has shot him alone in a white-walled studio. With no audience to play off of, and no sound except that of the cameras, he seems to be in an antiseptic laboratory, like a figure in a Richard Avedon photograph, albeit a blurry one.

Thater has replaced the sharp focus of such flawless, fashion-inspired photography (or advertising or popular movies) with the blurriness of low-budget, low-tech artiness. The muddiness of her movie is explained by a handout at the entrance, which informs viewers that after shooting Wilson in the studio, Thater screened the footage at the Los Angeles Theater, built in 1930-31, and then filmed the screening, complete with ornate stage and fancy curtain.

What we see at the museum is a movie of a movie. It’s an inverted version of a typical Hollywood production. Rather than shooting a scene from several angles and then selecting the best one, Thater shows us everything that would otherwise be left on the cutting room floor. And rather than going for the clarity of crisp imagery, she has gone to great lengths to keep the action at arm’s length.

It’s hard to tell if the rabbit is alive or stuffed. What is clear is that there is very little that is alive in Thater’s tedious rehashing of a style of filmmaking that ran its course in the early 1970s and is now fetishized by academics and film buffs and artists eager to distance themselves from the reality of entertainment.

--David Pagel

‘Diana Thater: Between Science and Magic,’ Santa Monica Museum of Art, 2525 Michigan Ave., Bergamot Station, (310) 586-6488, through April 17. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Suggested donation, $5 adults; $3 seniors and students. 310.586.6488

Above: Thater’s installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Photo credit: Courtesy Hauser & Wirth, London, and David Zwirner, New York