Walls dissolve in Diana Thater’s beautiful, affecting retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For 25 years, the L.A. artist has been creating immersive video installations that appear to breach the contours of the gallery, transporting viewers into other realities: swimming with dolphins, interacting with wolves or exploring the contaminated ruins of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Throughout, Thater has exploited the technology and conventions of video to examine the nature of perception and to probe the fraught line between human and animal.
With just 22 works, “Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination” is tightly focused, somewhat austere but nevertheless stunning. Curators Lynne Cooke of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Christine Y. Kim of LACMA have selected major pieces and given them ample space to play. They forgo wall labels, and some of the room-filling installations overlap a bit, suffusing the space in lovely fields of colored light. (An indispensable gallery guide includes maps, titles and a brief artist statement for each work.) The exhibition is split among three buildings on the LACMA campus, but even this potential disconnect provides welcome breathers from what might otherwise become retinal overload.
The show opens in the Art of the Americas building with works from the 1990s and early 2000s. “Delphine,” from 1999, transforms the walls and floor with images of dolphins swimming in rapturous undulations. Four rhomboid projections, like the exploded walls of a fish tank, splay across the room, bending its corners back upon themselves and creating the impression of a space freed from gravity and right angles. These are anchored on one side by a freestanding wall of monitors displaying a pulsing blue sun. The disorienting whole is suffused in a hot-pink glow that further unmoors the space from reality. It is designed to evoke the way dolphins navigate in their horizon-less, underwater environment; it approaches an out-of-body experience.
In other works, Thater has used the video camera’s particular way of “seeing” as another way to make things strange. In “Oo Fifi, Five Days in Claude Monet’s Garden, Part 1 and Part 2,” from 1992, she split footage of the famed estate into its constitutive color channels: red, green and blue. Each channel is then presented slightly off-register to create a fractured, multiple, somewhat dizzying image. The works refer to Monet’s fragmenting of perception into daubs of paint, but the bobbing and weaving of the camera through the flowers and leaves also suggest the movement of a flying insect or bird. Video technology becomes an avenue not for reproducing human vision but for imagining an inhuman one.
Viewers also play a part in the layered imagery of “Chernobyl,” from 2011, on view with four other works in LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum building. (Two pieces appear in the lobby of the Bing Theater.) In recent years, Thater has moved away from dissecting the technical qualities of her medium in favor of inventive layering and juxtaposition. In Chernobyl, the Ukrainian site of one of the worst nuclear meltdowns in history, she shot footage of the deserted and ruined streets, which have gradually been overrun by plants and wildlife even though the site is still dangerously radioactive. She then projected this footage on the interior walls of a ruined movie theater and shot the resulting imagery from multiple points of view.
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of "Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album "Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
This footage is projected in the round like “China,” and the result is deeply affecting, juxtaposing healthy-looking wild horses, swans and lush plant life with rubble and neglect. Nature triumphs over human habitation, but only, ironically, because humanity has unleashed an invisible poison. The piece layers outside and inside, nature and civilization, rebirth and decay on the ruined stage of our collective imagination: the movie theater. As a product of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl is also the specter of another ruined collective imagining.
As with “China,” the work is impossible to see without becoming a part of it. In the swirl of imagery, our shadows make stark and obtrusive voids, while our bodies, their contours dissolving amid the projections, feel almost invisible. Try as you might, there is nowhere to stand and passively observe. Everyone is involved.
This is where Thater’s work separates itself from traditional nature films and other nonfiction filmmaking. Such media usually fixate on strange beings, places or behaviors as objects of dispassionate study, but Thater proposes a more reciprocal relationship, asking in an artist’s statement: “What do I see when I look at the other and what does it see when it looks back at me?” Her absorbing, challenging work pushes us to find out.
‘Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination’
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: Through Feb. 21; closed Wednesdays
Info: (323) 857-6000, www.lacma.org