• Diana Thater: Chernobyl | David Zwirner Gallery | ArtReview

    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

  • REVIEW: Diana Thater | David Zwirner | ArtReview

    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

  • The horizon in Sugimoto and Sandback…

    David Cohen convened the first of the spring’s Review Panels at the National Academy Museum on January 30th, and among the shows the panelists took to task was Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs at Gagosian (21st St.), 7 Days / 7 Nights.  An odd thing happened when the panelists–joining David were Elizabeth Schambelan, Ken Johnson and (my friend, the brilliant) Joan Waltemath–began talking about Sugimoto’s work: not a single panelist mentioned the one factor that organizes this series of Sugimoto’s photographs, and that is the horizon.  (In fact, only Joan actually mentioned the content of the images at all, noting the importance of the local weather conditions to the effectiveness of the photographs.)  Perhaps it is too obvious, but it seems to me that one cannot adequately get at what is interesting, or even important, about Sugimoto’s seascapes, without at least broaching the topic of the horizon–whether as a line or as limit of perception (both real and metaphorical) or as primordial condition of orientation.


    Hiroshi Sugimoto, 'Ionian Sea Santa Cesarea' (1990)

    It’s not that Sugimoto’s seascapes are necessarily “about” the horizon (though they are this in many ways); rather, in the images, the horizon at once announces itself as the element that offers the internal formal logic of the pictures (Sugimoto photographs his seas such that the horizon always appears in the same place, bisecting the horizontal dimension of the image), while at the same time, that logic is consistently undermined, or challenged, sometimes by the starkness of the formal device itself (in pictures where the sea and sky are easily distinguished, the recession is flattened and the picture reads like a geometric abstraction) but often by the weather or lighting conditions that obscure the horizon’s very legibility.

    In short, what Sugimoto’s photographs of seascapes do is to assert and to negate the horizon at the same time; speaking phenomenologically, we could say that these pictures orient and disorient at the same time.  It is this sense of disorientation that Michael Fried, in his recent book, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before  (Yale, 2008), pushes to such a point that it underwrites the “ontological fiction,” so important to Fried’s thinking on absorption and theatricality, that the observer does not exist.  Here disorientation becomes a kind of a-orientation, a condition of being-in-the-world that has no need of one’s being-there, of a perspective that belongs to no one (and it is exactly in this sense that Sugimoto’s photographs are not exercises in perspective, even though they hinge on the horizon line, upon which all perspectival constructions must be built).

    I think there is something to this reading of Sugimoto’s seascapes, but I am not willing to give up the other side of the coin here; which is to say, in negating the horizon, Sugimoto’s photographs reassert or perserve it all the same.  Whether that horizon is “for us” or “for itself” is a subsequent concern.  And staying with this pairing of negation and preservation is exactly what leads me to Fred Sandback’s work.  Or rather, it is Sandback’s work that lead me, I think, to a better understanding of Sugimoto’s seascapes.


    Fred Sandback, 'Untitled' (1972)
    Fred Sandback, 'Untitled' (1972)

    It is pure conicidence that David Zwirner mounted an exhibition of Sandback’s work while the Sugimoto was on.  But these are the kinds of chance encounters the can be essential to thinking things anew.  Walking through the Sandback installation, one cannot but be struck by how the geometric layouts that one reads where the strings connect to the floor or ceiling become all but illegible when viewing the pieces straight on.  More technically, one would describe this as the conflict or the incongruity between the works’ plan an elevation, as Edward Vasquez did when he gave a walkthrough of the exhibition back at the very end of January.  Vasquez went on to conjecture, rightly I think, that what Sandback was doing in much of his work was engaging with the language of linear perspective, the mapping or translating of three-dimensional space through the use of a two-dimensional line, which, of course, Sandback renders three-dimensional once again.

    And if engaging with the language or vocabulary of  linear perspective is what Sandback is doing, then the horizon once again becomes paramount.  And yet the horizon in Sandback’s work is essentially nonexistent; or rather, Sandback’s work, as Sugimoto’s seascapes do, negates the horizon at every turn.  Not one piece of thread seems to take up residence or establish a horizon line for the viewer.  The one that comes closest, a corner piece of white and red thread, is more concerned with constructing the illusion of the piece’s connection to the walls–an act of experiential disorientation rather than perspecitival orientation.  But again, in denying the horizon, one becomes that much more aware of it.  In its absence, the horizon is preserved.