Los Angeles-based artist Diana Thater creates pioneering video art and installations that deal with the relationship of animals and their environment, the similarities between animal and human culture, and the tensions between the natural environment and mediated reality – between the wild and the tamed. Her work deals with threats to the natural world such as the extinction of species or environmental disasters. She draws on a variety of sources: literature, animal behavior, mathematics, Hollywood films, chess, and sociology, among others. She wants people to show “kindness to other beings” which in turn will better the condition of animals and also the condition of humanity.
Born in San Francisco, Thater wanted to be an architect. She was always interested in space, and her art deals with the complexities of our relationship to space. However, she studied Art History at New York University and received her B.A. in 1984. In 1990, she received her M.F.A. from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
Many of her works have as their subject matter the meeting and interaction of people and animals. She has filmed animals in unnatural surroundings: wild gorillas in a park setting; a wolf trained to work in Hollywood films; and monkeys living in a temple in India. Thater has said that she considers abstraction in art to be an abstraction of the figurative. But in video, abstraction is an abstraction of time. She believes that the natural world is not a straight narrative but is instead another kind of time. She is interested in the relationships between images, space, and time. So her evocative and near-abstract works diverge from linear time to create a relationship between time-based and spatial dimensions.
In “Delphine” Thater simultaneously projected multiple videos of dolphins swimming underwater. This video was projected on various surfaces and not just on walls of the museum. She wanted a viewer to be able to almost feel the dolphins and to have a sympathetic response to them. A viewer’s silhouette could be seen interacting with the animals, with the viewer becoming part of the work. She wanted to stop the capture and sale of dolphins to parks and zoos.
Her work “Chernobyl” displays many views of different places in Prypiat in Chernobyl. It centers on the footage of a theater and shows the destruction caused by human error. However, it also shows the persistence of life amid the carnage.
For central Los Angeles’s Underground Museum, which was founded by African American artists Noah and Karon Davis, Thater installed one of the translucent works, a candy-colored plastic awning. This can be seen in a vibrant time lapse video, made by the architect Lorcan O’Herlihy with whom she collaborated in the museum’s “Artists of Color” exhibit.
Thater has received numerous awards and fellowships. They include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, the Jame D. Phelan Award in Film and Video, a California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists, and an Art 7 Technology Lab Grant from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions in the Dia Center for the Arts in New York and in Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao. She has also exhibited in museums and institutions in Colorado, California, Boston, Brisbane, London, Bremen, and Vienna. In 2015, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a mid-career survey of her works, “The Sympathetic Imagination.” This show traveled to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Thater’s art is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, Carnegie Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, Walker Art Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.