Beta Space: Diana ThaterApril 28, 2015
San Jose Museum of ArtMarch 13 - September 13, 2015 Solo Show
In Beta Space: Diana Thater at San Jose Museum of Art (SJMA), the artist explores the evocative and nuanced relationship between dung beetles and the universe. In addition to presenting video, Thater floods two galleries with blue light that strongly references the Light and Space movement. Thater unfortunately undermines her conceptually rich terrain by forcing a rather underwhelming physical experience. With its Silicon Valley location, SJMA is commendably addressing the intersection of art and technology, specifically with its Beta Space exhibitions. However, as the fourth installment in this series, Thater's installation unintentionally provokes questions regarding the museum’s program that parallels changes in the confluence of money and influence in technology and the art world.
In her installation Science, Fiction (2015), Thater projects a video of beetles onto the museum’s vaulted ceiling, directly above a large white box. Surrounded by organic matter, the beetles are hard to identify and barely move, such that at first glance the video seems to be a still image. Belying the humble status of dung beetles—insects that burrow their broods in balls of animal excrement—Thater’s video enlarges the beetles’ scale and flips them skyward. Reinforcing this topsy-turvy orientation, yellow LEDs that are suggestive of the sun illuminate the bottom of the white box. Thater’s project also alludes to the ancient Egyptian scarab god Khepri, who was believed to move the sun across the sky as a daily symbol of rebirth and renewal. In the adjacent gallery, Thater presents Visual Voyage: Milky Way to the Virgo Cluster (2015) and Aquarius Halos (2015), two videos of stars and galaxies swirling and advancing toward the viewer. Displayed on sets of nine flat-screen monitors, the videos spatially command the museum’s walls while also being miniaturized representations of the cosmos. In contrast to the rather straightforward footage of the beetles, Thater’s use of graphic animation enhances the motion of the already highly mediated depictions of the stars that were sourced from major astronomical research programs and institutions, like the Hubble telescope and Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics. With their high key colors and shift in scale, at times galaxies and stars become abstracted, resembling biological illustrations like neurological maps or DNA visualizations. The juxtapositions in Thater’s three works suggest that while unimaginably numerous and vast, insects and stars retain many mysteries in their organization and composition.
With her large white box in a gallery flooded with blue light, Thater employs tactics similar to the Light and Space artist James Turrell. Turrell frequently uses colored light to define and defy architectural space, producing unease within the body and jolting viewers into reexamining their physical relationship with space. While Thater’s juxtaposition of videos evokes many fascinating ideas, the bulk of her sparse installation consists of two galleries filled with blue light. Unfortunately, navigating the galleries as an experiential component is rather lackluster. Additionally, the white box, while housing the video projectors directed at the ceiling, does not really create mystery, and it did not cause me to reflect upon my physical relationship with space.
The three previous installments of the Beta Space series featured original commissions1 that the museum framed as exploring the multidisciplinary homespun laboratory of the somewhat mythic Silicon Valley “garage” and the cross-cultural hybridity that it has spurred. Likewise, SJMA frames Thater’s exhibition in light of the Silicon Valley “garage,” experimentation, and collaboration.2 Earlier this year, Thater exhibited the solo exhibition Science, Fiction at David Zwirner, New York.3 In this exhibition, Thater contributed Sidereus Nuncius (2014) and The Starry Messenger (2014), for which she shot her own video from the Griffith Observatory. While Thater worked with Puragra GuhaThakurta4 in selecting the imagery for Visual Voyage: Milky Way to the Virgo Cluster and Aquarius Halos, exhibited at SJMA, their installation and imagery are quite similar to the two works previously exhibited at David Zwirner. Thater has also presented the same dung-beetle video and installation in both shows. While the SJMA’s accompanying essay5 indicates that Thater has been commissioned to produce new works, I am unconvinced that Thater's minor changes constitute new works or the experimentation that the series seeks to support.
Recently, Julia Halperin has reported that David Zwirner is among the five New York galleries that represent artists granted 30% of U.S. museum solo exhibitions between 2007 and 2013.6 As a regional museum that serves Silicon Valley, SJMA has squandered an opportunity to foster innovative local artists engaged in technology, choosing instead to import and repackage an exhibition from a major New York gallery. As venture capital affects the scale of Silicon Valley innovation, garage-based start-ups are more myth than reality these days; in turn, SJMA may also need to adjust the frame for their Beta Space series.
Beta Space: Diana Thater is on view at San Jose Museum of Art, in San Jose, through September 13, 2015.