Diana Thater’s work is deceiving in the sincerest way possible. A video veteran—she’s been exhibiting since the early ‘90s—Thater always manages to maintain an understated freshness that makes her work seem fugitive and youthful. The ephemeral aura of her work is immediately discernible but the unsettling, non-narrative suggestions that her videos make take longer to uncover. Her current exhibition at 1301PE requires an investment; unless you take the time to lose yourself, you won’t feel the quiet pulse of uncertainty and absurdity that makes the exhibition so mesmerizing.
The show includes four videos, one of her earliest, Ginger Kittens, and then three recent works. Perfect Devotion Number 4, the first video you see upon entering the gallery, is a double-exposed 35mm film. The image of a single tiger hovers over the image of two other tigers and the three interact as if in parallel universes. Number 4 is completely aware of the fact that it’s a video; the crew occasionally appears on the outskirts of the frame and even the tigers seem to recognize that they’re being filmed. Yet this awareness only makes the video seem more ephemeral, like its acknowledgment of its own filming makes it an especially fragile experience that must be carefully observed.
Upstairs, Perfect Devotion Number 5 has a more dislocating, surreal effect. While Number 5 again includes the same three tigers, they all appear onscreen together only fleetingly. For the most part, the dominant cast of the video is two tigers, a metal tub, a pink ball, a red ball, a fence, an arc of water and a shadow. Each element maintains its autonomy. With the exception of a playful bat, the tigers barely touch each other. They take turns moving into the tub, out of the tube, playing with the balls—the balls don’t touch either—sitting by the fence, following the arc of water. But the whole experience resembles a completely un-composed sort of poetry; you feel like you’re watching a plastic bag blow down the sidewalk or a series of leaves fall from a tree.
And here’s where Thater becomes deceiving: the un-composed quality of her work lulls you into a state of disorientation and, when you suddenly recognize the absurdity, complexity and injustice of the scene, realize that no tiger should be on an urban lawn or in a tube that size, and that the lethargy of the animals seems metonymic, standing in for a pervasive sense of displacement, you don’t really know what to do about it.
It’s this sort of uncertainty that makes Thater’s work so unassumingly effective. She makes you aware of your own complicated relationship to the world at large but she does so while indulging in the beauty of individual, visual moments.
(Images from top to bottom: Perfect Devotion Number Five, 2008, (1) Digital projector, (1) DVD player, (1) Screen on tripod, (1) wooden chair and green gels, Dimensions variable;Untitled Videowall, 2008, Video/Film, (6) Flat panel monitors, (1) DVD player, (1) Synchronizer and orange gels, Dimensions variable; Ginger Kittens, 1994, Video/Film, (2) Flat panel monitors, (1) DVD player, green gels, Dimensions variable, all images courtesy 1301 PE)