New York

Diana Thater

Diana Thater’s art is inseparable from the technology used to implement it—LCD projectors, swivel mounts, DVD players, sync devices, plasma screens, and endless electric cords fill her installation spaces and manipulate our movement through them. In environments as wired and controlling as these, imagery itself might appear almost incidental, doubly so when it is, as here, almost purely decorative: Thater has a penchant for pictures of the natural world—flowers, forests, and fires. She allows her camera to sweep across these scenes so that when projected onto walls, ceilings, and floors, the results activate architectural space and create an expanded formal framework. This strategy destabilizes our expectations of filmic space as linear and rational and also diminishes narrativity, such that flora and fauna hold the place of content without actually constituting the meaning of the work.

Thater’s major new work, Continuous. Contiguous., 2004–2005, occupies space in the sprawling, random fashion we’ve come to expect—images appear to slide in slow motion over walls, graze corners, and wander poetically past thresholds, while viewers navigate a floor strewn with technical apparatus. Yet the images themselves are more arresting and perhaps overdetermined than any Thater has worked with to date. In Continuous. Contiguous., Thater treats us to a privileged view of the upper canopy of a rainforest, and this spectacular scene reinforces her environmental consciousness. It’s unlikely that one could find a more culturally charged image of nature at present, one that refuses to play background to the mesmerizing effect of the minimal-meets-high-tech installation.

An array of digital projectors causes filmic fragments of the verdant, virgin forest to drift languidly through the gallery, while plasma screens on the floor glow with close-up details of the lush equatorial paradise. Inseparable from the panorama of untrammeled tropical beauty, an image of a giant industrial crane curtails our reverie. Even without the knowledge that Thater was part of a Fulbright research group, with access to a crane operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and permanently installed in the Panamanian rainforest, we understand exactly where we are. Nature is under threat, and our appreciation of it is shadowed by lament for a world that may soon be lost.

But despite this narrative thrust, Continuous. Contiguous. defers literal or singular readings. Like other artists who have been drawn to the great outdoors in a quest to experience and understand the earth in fundamental ways—Robert Smithson comes to mind—Thater’s art has as much to do with formal manifestations in the gallery as it does with fieldwork. Her far-flung activities can be seen as a series of reclamation projects with an eco-feminist twist. She studies animal communication, she experiences “the wild” firsthand, she learns to swim with dolphins, she seeks out rarified places in order to be enthralled and terrified. We, in turn, are drawn into the play of a first-person fictional sublime that moves unpredictably from real to imagined plateaus of experience, past the logic of causal relationships, and toward a concentrated vision that paradoxically puts us in touch with the limits of our own perception.

Jan Avgikos