Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination


Diana Thater / LACMA

Diana Thater was born in California in the early 1960s and received her MFA from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where she currently teaches. A pioneer in the field of video art, her work is refined and elegant, beautiful and accessible. The most extensive show of her work is on view at LACMA through February 21, 2016 and Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination occupies the most space ever given to a female artist at the museum. With such a significant commitment to this work, the curators at LACMA want us to pay attention. Thater is at the mid-way point in a fascinating career, and a Southern California treasure.


Good news for families: Thater’s work is easy for kids (and reluctant art-fans) to appreciate. Her pieces usually take as a starting point an animal – wolves, bees, falcons, butterflies, and monkeys each take center stage in this show. The work itself has layers of meaning — touching on myth and literature, and speaking to our relationship with nature – but the animals are an easy point of entry for kids. Have them think about the natural elements evoked in the show. What is the experience of those animals?  What do the animals’ life cycles and habitats make us think about, and then, how are they are depicted in the video art? Have kids search to see where the video is projected from in each room, and ask whether they, as viewers, are meant to spectators from within, or without, of the work itself? Why does she use animals to tell a story? What is she saying about our relationship with nature?


Thater does deep work investigating each of her topics, and typically makes one piece in a year.  Take the time to read the materials on hand in the gallery, and don’t miss the chance to invesgitate the primal meanings evoked by the artist – her work has many layers.


Thater often travels someplace special to tell her story:  Chernobyl, Monet’s garden, China, or under the sea.  She works with archetypal myths and symbols – evoking our unconscious as well as historical references that come into play as we contemplate her imagery. Butterflies, falcons, and wolves have been used to express meaning for centuries, and she evokes these creatures with intent.

Diana Thater: LACMA

She plays with the medium of light itself –  breaking it up into it’s three primal parts (blue, cyan and magenta) and literally exposes the means of production behind the work; in each gallery, you can readily see the video projectors; Thater purposefully makes them part of the work.

Diana Thater


The other key to Thater’s work is her use of architecture – specifically, how she matches her video to the space in which it is viewed.  These create layers of meaning, multiple points of entry for a visitor. According to LACMA’s Michael Govan, Thater’s use of multiple perspectives in each work takes away traditional art’s “resolution through a single point of view” and instead, uses both the images and the architecture to create a “new spiritual reality”. Think of paintings and sculptures created for churches and traditional environments. How does she change the feeling of a boxy gallery, claiming it as her own?

20151116_LACMA_Thater_027_labeledIn one piece, we are situated as if underwater while dolphins swim around us and indeed, in her life outside of art she is a passionate defender of dolphins. The room is serene and beautiful, and we are being asked to consider the subjectivity of these creatures – how they live, what their experience is, and how are interact.

Diana Thater

Walk through the galleries carefully – each doorway and window is considered to be part of the installation, and many of these change as the day goes by, or the lights in adjoining galleries shifts.

20151117_LACMA_Thater_050_labeledOur favorite room was upstairs at BCAM, where a sun and a moon are projected on opposite ends of a huge room. Falcons, with and without hoods, move along a wall between the luminous celestial orbs.



As you can tell, we had some fun taking photos in the room, but the mythic and permanent allegories were also heavy contributors to the experience.
Diana Thater: LACMA

In another room, Thater has photographed a temple in India that has only a facade – no interior – and what little space is left inside has been occupied by monkeys. In a far corner of the exhibit, you can sit on a bench and observe video of the temple itself, and through windows in a video “wall” you can spot more video of the monkeys who are running the place. To sit and contemplate the scene is to be transported to India, and the beauty of the video image and of the way Thater creates the sensation of being at the Indian temple with monkeys running amok.

Diana Thater ; LACMA

As we contemplated the work, we had to ask ourselves – what does beauty have to do with this work? Plenty, it turns out. The show grew on us as time passed, and not just because we came away with great photos from our experience. The images and ideas Thater poses are indelible in their simplicity. Memorable for their grace and elegance, and even, as suggested by the exhibition notes, spiritually resonant.

Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination is open through April 17, 2016

LACMA //  5905 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90036
323 857-6010 |