July 4 – October 8, 2018
Inaugurating the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston’s new, 15,000-square-foot satellite location, called ICA Watershed, is a self-titled solo exhibition by Diana Thater, curated by Eva Respini with Cara Kuball. The building, formerly a nineteenth-century copper-pipe and sheet-metal factory, was renovated by Anmahian Winton Architects and sits within an active shipyard and marina in the largely Hispanic neighborhood of Eastie (East Boston), just a ferry ride across the harbor from the ICA’s flagship location.1
Greeting viewers to Thater’s exhibition is the following sentence: “Diana Thater has been a pioneer in film and video art since the early 1990s.” I tried to not let this contradiction weigh on me as I viewed the rest of the show, but I couldn’t stop wondering: how could, and why would, one describe the artist as a “pioneer,” since the 1990s, of a movement that began in the 1960s? While I share the desire to emphasize Thater’s influential role as a video artist, I felt frustrated not simply because the claim was historically inaccurate, but moreover, because of the recurring impulse to legitimize an artist’s practice based on who did what first. The term “pioneer” encapsulates a colonial mindset of conquest, of the new, of life at the far boundary of civilization and Western culture—a concept Thater’s own work has troubled. Her early Snake River (1994), for instance, responded to pictorial tropes of the American West (the prototypical and cinematic context in which the term “colonizer” is replaced with the euphemistic “pioneer”) as falsely portraying the territory as untouched and uninhabited, used to justify the project of westward expansion.2
Thater was not a pioneer of video art—both in that she was not an early practitioner, and that her work is critical of colonial attitudes—though there are many other criteria by which to claim her work’s importance. In fact, one of the reasons Thater’s work is so admirable is that the artist is self-reflexive regarding her relationship to the history of video art preceding her own practice. During the mid-1990s, for instance, as video projection became more frequently used in gallery spaces, it also became subject to critique: some, like Dominique Païni, feared the medium was inherently spectacular, even technopositivist.3 Thater was wise to revisit, around this time, formal conventions of early video art. She wrote, “If we look at the history of video, early installation is not about theatricality at all. It’s about banality or ordinariness or about the medium and how video is made and how television is made.”4
Thater’s own positioning within the history of video art is largely absent from the Watershed exhibition, which begins in 1999—which would not be much of a problem had the text not tried (and failed) to set up such a strong historical argument. In fact, much of the work on view suggests a newfound comfort with video’s now-common spectacular qualities. A seductive installation titled Delphine (1999) opens the show—a four-channel projection places the viewer amidst footage of wild dolphins swimming in the turquoise water of the Caribbean. The dolphins are filmed from the vantage point of divers who film and interact with them. The projection is then basked in magenta light, cast both from the accompanying video wall displaying a telescopic image of the sun, as well as from a spectrum of colored gels that the artist has placed in the museum’s linear skylight, which runs the length of the building. The installation engages the viewer’s perceptual body as well as the video’s architectural and natural environments, immersing museum goers in settings alluring yet inhospitable to humans: underwater and outer space.
In the mid-1990s, Thater often resisted the spectacular quality of video by incorporating cube monitors commonplace at the time—which many video artists, somewhat surprisingly, continue to use today. Part of their continued appeal, I suppose, is that they easily read as “video art” in a time when flatscreens on walls dominate quotidian settings, from museum admissions desks to airports. They also fit nicely atop pedestals, enabling them to blend seamlessly into the white cube, whereas projections require separate darkened spaces. At the Watershed, Thater opts for flatscreen monitors: the series Day for Night (2013) features single-channel videos across grids of nine LCD displays. They depict flowers shot on 16 mm, featuring double exposures, and were filmed using a “day for night” filter—a dark blue filter meant to make day scenes look like they are shot at night. While a number of recent video artists have paired LCD screens with CGI animation or appropriated clips from mass media (such as Jordan Wolfson, Sondra Perry, Ed Atkins, or Martine Syms), taking current and future technological moments as their subject, Thater ignores neat chronological categorization by mixing old and new technologies. Despite this, Day for Night does not manage to transcend the commercial effect of the screens: while much of the artists’ work thoughtfully addresses urgencies of the Anthropocene, at times it reproduces the ways in which flowers and animals serve as decorative screensavers removed from natural environments or ecosystems (a subject boldly navigated by artist Katja Novitskova, who considers how corporations use animals’ capacity for attention capital in media).
This point is further revealed in the disconnect that can occur between her glamorous depictions of animals and the context described in the accompanying texts. Take Untitled Videowall (Butterflies) (2008), also on view; Thater recorded the annual monarch butterfly migration from Canada to Mexico the year that a frosty Mexican winter killed millions of butterflies, showing one sad implication of climate change. The weight of this tragic occurrence is largely illegible in the extremely beautiful work. The LCD monitors splayed on the floor transcend lobby décor, but the representation of the monarch butterflies comprises closeups of the stunning creatures and contains no traces of their destruction, thereby positioning the specimen’s beauty as technological spectacle.
The stars of the show—both conceptually and formally—are As Radical As Reality and A Runaway World (both 2017). Displayed side by side on two intersecting screens each, both were shot in Kenya and center on endangered species: As Radical As Reality is a portrait of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros, who died in March 2018. The footage shows the rhino, his armed protectors, and the artist’s crew set in his habitat, at once threatened and stunning. The artist described the shooting process as “the saddest thing I’ve ever done.”5 Though the work is dazzling, this sadness, and the rhino’s loneliness, is still palpable—rather than, as in Untitled Videowall (Butterflies), present only in caption. As Radical As Reality takes advantage of video’s capacity for gorgeously mesmerizing images—which Thater has mastered—as well as human attraction to gorgeous images of plants and animals, all in the service of a message that’s both politically urgent and affectively moving, encapsulating all the best of what the artist has to offer.
- This new location has warranted justified concerns about gentrification, alongside optimism for the ICA’s thoughtful provisions of free admission and Spanish-language programming and texts. See Hilarie M. Sheets, “In an East Boston Shipyard, a Watershed Idea for Art,” New York Times, June 22, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/22/arts/design/east-boston-shipyard-watershed-institute-of-contemporary-art.html.
- I’ve written about this further in Before Projection: Video Sculpture 1974–1995. Ed. Henriette Huldisch. (Cambridge, MA: MIT List Visual Arts Center and Munich: Hirmer).
- See: Dominique Païni, "Should We Put an End to Projection?," trans. Rosalind E. Krauss, October, no. 110 (2004): 23–48.
- Kathryn Kanjo, ed., Diana Thater: Selected Works 1992–1996, exh. cat. (Basel: Schwabe / Kunsthalle Basel, 1996), n.p.
- Thater quoted in: Amah-Rose Abrams, “Artist Diana Thater Documents the Last Northern White Rhinos on Earth,” Artnet News, April 13, 2016. https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/diana-thater-last-northern-white-rhinos-469667.