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Diana Thater: Chernobyl | David Zwirner Gallery | ArtReview

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Diana Thater, Chernobyl (2010); installation, David Zwirner Gallery, 2012

‘Postapocalyptic’ deserves retirement. It’s had a long, hard-working life, and yet still doesn’t complain when it’s called up to pull the deadweight of descriptive laziness and capitulations to cliché. Take your pick of the ruined, the abandoned, the murdered land, but apocalypse will never make a genuine appearance on earth. As a concept, it’s total. Whereas our human imaginations are merely regional: we kill ourselves by the square foot, never all at once. Which is why nothing comes after the end.

Diana Thater’s Chernobyl (2010), installed in David Zwirner’s easternmost gallery space on one of the many Sandy-ravaged strips of West Chelsea, reminds us just how limited our imaginations are. Filmed in the ‘exclusion zone’, a 30-kilometre no-man’s-land that rings the 1986 meltdown site, Thater’s video reveals a remarkably vibrant sanctuary, filled with plants and animals, all undoubtedly irradiated, yet all very much alive after a generation or two or three. Centred on the wreckage of an old theatre in Pripyat, the company town whose onetime residents managed and cared for the reactor, Thater’s installation recreates the geometries of the theatre’s walls and gives us a panoramic loop that changes like Chernobyl’s diminished seasons.

The point of Thater’s piece is not to draw us once again into the depths of self-hatred whenever the subject of nuclear power and its ecological disasters are broached (though it does that too). Instead, its designs are on time itself, and the fact that it doesn’t ‘pass’ (another cliché) but is ‘lived’ and lived in. The zone around Chernobyl is occupied by much wildlife, including, amazingly, horses, specifically Przewalskis, the last surviving subspecies of wild horses, which were introduced to the area because only there could they exist relatively undisturbed by humans. There are people too. Mortuary workers who care for the remains of the dead – actually, only half-dead – nuclear hulk and its burial ground.

‘Half-dead’ may not be right either. Plutonium-239 decays at a rate of 50 percent every 24,000 years. That’s a stability no human civilisation can hope to achieve (the Holocene itself only dates to about a 21 percent drawdown of the isotope). The cesium in the ground, which was meant to disappear after only 60 years, looks to be taking five times longer. These are historical scales and geological scales, both human and inhuman, and Thater’s video implicates them in their invisibility, just as a shot of the moon rising over a statue of Lenin in the video’s opening sequence implicates the ideology – equally invisible – that has irradiated us all.

Published in ArtReview, January/February 2013

Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

April 26th, 2013 at 3:33 pm

REVIEW: Diana Thater | David Zwirner | ArtReview

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From the April issue of ArtReview:

Just how many times can you watch a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat? This is surely not the central question asked by Diana Thater’s new film installation, Between Science and Magic (2010), but it is one that will certainly occur to most viewers, and in the end its answer will be seen to supersede the work’s more obvious concerns and conceits (which does make it central in some sense). For the answer to that question is ‘more than you would think’, and the reason is that Thater’s new work, for all of its self-reflexive exfoliations—perhaps because of all of its self-reflexive exfoliations—is an object lesson in cinephilia, both Thater’s and our own.

The title of Thater’s piece is drawn from the late Claude Lévi-Strauss’s The Savage Mind, in which the father of structuralism, forever staking out the dyads of our understanding, describes art as halving the axis between ‘scientific knowledge’ and ‘mythical or magical thought’. For nearly two decades, Thater’s artistic province has been the camera arts, which have long enjoyed dual membership in the two societies of science and magic. It only makes sense then that Between Science and Magic is dedicated to filming a representative from the first while revealing the mechanisms of the second (and, if you’re paying attention, the first as well)—that is, what we see is a magician, decked-out in tux and tails, repeatedly perform the illusion of making a live rabbit (‘Josephine’ is her name) appear in what was his demonstratively empty top hat; we see him do this (‘Greg Wilson’ is his name) from two angles simultaneously: the first one fixed, and filmed by Thater, the second one from a series of clock-wise positions, filmed by Thater’s assistant. These two angles are then ‘screened’ side by side, so that we see Wilson both from the front and in the round (we catch glimpses of Thater and her assistant too); but what we are really seeing is the re-filming of a previous side-by-side screening of the same footage on the screen of the Los Angeles Theater (a Golden-Age-of-LA relic), all of which is now being re-projected in the gallery, split-screen-style, by two synchronized sixteen-millimeter projectors, replete with a soundtrack of the previous recordings and projection. So much for the exfoliation.

Over and over again the rabbit appears, and with each iteration, with each successful conjuring of the illusion, we get a little closer to figuring out how the trick works—both the magician’s and the artist’s. The precision of the former’s choreography is matched by the mechanics of the latter’s apparatus. Each is exacting; both, we come to realize, are refugees from the era of what Hollis Frampton named the ‘last machine’ (a.k.a. ‘film’, when precise parts and movements could be ‘seen’). If we attend to science to figure out what the world is like, and we attend to magic to be amazed, then somewhere in between the camera arts let us do both, and we love them for it

Written by Jonathan T. D. Neil

April 24th, 2010 at 8:33 am