“There was a valley thick enclosed with cypresses and pines, sacred to the huntress queen, Diana. In the extremity of the valley was a cave, not adorned with art, but nature had counterfeited art in its construction, for she had turned the arch of its roof with stones, as delicately fitted as if by the hand of man. A fountain burst out from one side, whose open basin was bounded by a grassy rim. Here the goddess of the woods used to come when weary with hunting and lave her virgin limbs in the sparkling water.”
The myth of Actæon tells the pitiless tale of the young hunter, who—after telling his fellow hunting buddies to lay off the killing for the day—wanders off and is unfortunate enough to stumble upon Diana. The goddess of hunting, virginity, fertility, household pets, and oak groves is bathing in her cave and quite upset at the idea of a mortal man seeing her naked. She turns him into a deer, the hunter subsequently receiving the same fate as the animals he once hunted, reduced by a huntress deeply connected to the rhythms of nature, slain by his own friends.
Diana Thater seeks to similarly represent the wonder and challenges of nature through her film, curation, education, and writing. “What we are reaching towards is a certain kind of freedom,” she says sitting in the front row of LACMA’s Bing Theater following the install. “I think [this freedom] would stop us from destroying everything we touch. It would certainly change the way we relate to the world and the way we react to the freedom or the lack of freedom we grant to animals and nature.”
Specifically, Thater is discussing one of her seminal works, “Delphine,” from 1999, which projects footage of bottlenose dolphins blissfully playing in clear Caribbean waters on the gallery walls. The work possesses a portal-like quality and dismantles the separation between observer and subject, simulating the sensation of floating right alongside these creatures. The piece is one of many Thater films which will be on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art beginning November 22nd for the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective entitled Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination.
In “Life is A Time-Based Medium,” (2015), Thater’s focus turns to monkeys roaming the Galtaji Hindu temple and pilgrimage site in Jaipur, India. In the film, viewers lock eyes and establish a palpable connection to these animals through the camera. “I started to think about this question of ‘who looks back at you when you look at an animal,’” she says, “When you look at a landscape, it is you looking at something, but what about when someone looks back at you and it’s not human? Who is that? That very much became my subject, the ‘who is the animal?’ question.”
When asked why mechanized film was her chosen medium to capture our warmth and sympathy for the animal kingdom, Thater states that the elements of time and temporality found in film are of vital importance to her, “That’s the beauty of film: that it utilizes time. Time is ephemeral. Time is ungraspable. Time is untouchable. Time and space are key elements in my work, which are unknowable, ultimately because we can’t hold them.”
In the eyes of Thater, the colors and shapes dancing across the screen are fleeting, and therefore more dear, and it finds a parallel in her presentation of the fragility of nature and of life. Thater espouses the notion that we as humans have to coexist with the world in a more cooperative and intuitive manner, “Humans destroy everything they touch. They destroy their environment. Animals only build, by building, they are integral parts of ecosystems. So, every animal in an ecosystem is vital to that system which means that it builds, but in the system, animals literally destroy nothing. They only give to the ecosystem to which they belong.”
Photographer: Sophie Caby at sophiecaby.com.
Makeup: Dana Delaney for therexagency.com.